Annals of Education

Ontario board pushes for 'boy-friendly' school

New director of education proposes ‘Male Leadership Academy,' which would be the Toronto's only gender-specific public school

By Josh Wingrove and Anthony Reinhart
Globe and Mail

Chris Spence, the director of education at Toronto's public school board, founded Boys 2 Men, a mentoring program for young male students.
Chris Spence, the director of education at Toronto's public school board, founded Boys 2 Men, a mentoring program for young male students.

Boys left behind by Toronto's public schools are about to feel a firm force pulling them forward: the strong hand of Chris Spence, the Toronto District School Board's new education director, who is calling for an all-male school and more "boy-friendly" classrooms to address male underachievement.

It's a bold step that's considered a first in the province. All-boys programs are typically found today in private schools and in the Catholic system, including Toronto's. A handful of public schools across Canada offer single-sex classes.

If adopted, however, Dr. Spence's Male Leadership Academy would be Toronto's only single-sex public elementary school. (Dr. Spence will be online Thursday at 5 p.m. ET for a discussion with Globe readers.)

Boys' disengagement at school not only leads to poor grades and unproductive lives, but also can lead to the kind of violence Toronto schools have struggled to control in recent years, Dr. Spence told reporters before presenting a sweeping vision document, his first since becoming director this year, to the board's planning and priorities committee last night.

"The real objective is to cast a critical eye on how we reach and teach our boys," said Dr. Spence, whose 2008 book, The Joys of Teaching Boys , makes the case that boys learn differently from girls and have suffered under a "unisex model for child rearing and teaching."

In Toronto public schools last year, boys were 3.5 times more likely to be suspended. They underperform compared with girls regardless of age, socioeconomic class or ethnicity, and are more likely to need learning support programs.

Dr. Spence is a former football player who studied education and taught in Toronto and Hamilton.

He has long advocated for strong role models for boys, to offset what he calls a "fatherless world" for youngsters. A decade ago, he pioneered a mentoring program called Boys 2 Men, which remains popular among Toronto and Hamilton students.

His new vision calls for a significant extension beyond that, to include the boys-only academy that would open for kindergarten to Grade 3 students next September and add a grade with each successive year. It would operate as a "school of choice" for interested families.

Leonard Sax, a physician who founded the American National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, cited other examples of single-sex education in Canada — private schools, a Nova Scotia Catholic all-girls school run by the public system, and three Toronto Catholic all-boys high schools among them.

But Dr. Spence's all-boys public elementary would be one of a kind in Ontario, he believes. "Dr. Spence is making a move here," Dr. Sax said. "There are hundreds of public schools in Toronto. Why not have one boys school?"

Glenmerry Elementary School in Trail, B.C., is among the Canadian schools to have experimented with single-sex education, splitting its boys and girls in most of its Grade 7 classes. They've seen boys' test scores jump since the move a few years ago.

"It's been a positive experience," said Mac Gregory, chairman of the Kootenay-Columbia School District board.

Other schools in Canada and the United States, however, have tried the split classroom approach only to revert to a traditional mixed setting.

The success of any school would depend on ensuring teachers are equipped to teach an all-boys class, and the curriculum is developed appropriately, Dr. Sax said.

Dr. Spence pledged to extend a sampling of a male-focused curriculum across all his schools. Within existing co-ed schools, he wants to set up "demonstration classrooms," some all-male and others using "boy-friendly" teaching techniques that recognize their different learning style.

He hopes the initiatives will also lure more male teachers to work in elementary schools, where they are underrepresented.

"Boys really thrive in environments that are hands-on; they thrive in environments in which there is structure, but also where they're empowered" to move about the classroom, he said. Under the traditional unisex approach, "When every bone in a boy's body is telling him to get up and move around, we're usually telling him to sit down and be quiet."

Catering to the specific learning needs of boys need not take away from similar efforts to help girls, said Dr. Spence, a 47-year-old father of a boy and a girl who attend public elementary schools. "I think that if you embrace equity, then you understand that equity is equal access to the system, and that may require differentiated treatment," he said. "There's a lot to be done in terms of girls ... but when you look at the data [regarding boys], to me it's just so compelling, so we have to do something about it."

"This is just an example of differentiating our treatment to better support our boys."

Dr. Sax nevertheless urged Toronto to also consider developing a program for girls.

"If it's so great for boys, why not create an all-girls school?" he said.

Board trustee Bruce Davis agreed, saying he fully supports the idea of creating single-sex schools for girls and boys. "Our style of teaching right now is very much about conforming, and sitting and listening, and not all boys learn that way. ... And you know what? With a laser-like focus, let's try it."

Trustee James Pasternak said one of his ward's school already includes single-sex classes — something he considered "a good middle ground rather than the physical separation on two different sites" — but nevertheless said the board should consider the approval.

"You've got to look to the private school system's secret to successes ... you see standalone schools that run prominent gender separated programs," he said in an interview, referring to "tony, upscale" preparatory schools such as Upper Canada College and Bishop Strachan, which are for boys and girls, respectively.

"You ask yourself, 'well, wait a minute. What do they know that we don't?'" Mr. Pasternak said.

Trustees heard from Dr. Spence and received his vision document last night. His proposed changes would need to be approved by the board.

His document also calls for more parental engagement in education, "full-service schools" with facilities to support students' families, better digital technology in classrooms, green-energy initiatives and a renewed effort to stem losses of 4,000 students a year by hiring a marketing director.

His vision document calls for a "less is more" approach to goal-setting, and lists just three overall priorities for the board: student achievement, parent and community engagement and financial stability.

In addition to several underused schools already under review, Dr. Spence also wants to launch eight new reviews in November, and look into conducting four more early next year.

Dr. Spence also wants to boost the ranks of international students, who pay to attend Toronto schools.

October 20, 2009 — Return to cover.
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