York grad Spence lauded as ‘agent of change’

Christopher Spence (BEd ’91) likes to tell the story of his arrival – as a boy of seven fresh off the boat from the United Kingdom – at a school in Windsor, where he was one of a handful of black students, wrote the National Post Dec. 5.

“I had this uniform on, and I had this British accent. Every day after school there’d be three or four bullies chasing me home. One of the reasons I ended up being a pretty good football player is because I took my books, put them under my arm, and I ran like hell. And the safest place for me to go was the library.”

Spence, now 47, is telling me this yarn while sitting at the long, dark-wood table in his spacious office on the fourth floor of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) headquarters, near Yonge and Finch streets, wrote the Post. He is a big, smiling man, with no pretence; he thanked me for taking the time to meet him. I had wanted to buy him lunch, but he doesn’t do lunch; in the event, we met at lunchtime for close to two hours, without so much as a glass of water to distract us. On the walls he has hung photos of Dr. Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson.

He took over as director of education – meaning, top bureaucrat – at Canada’s largest board, with 260,000 students, in July, and has made a big impact quickly.

In Toronto, the high school dropout rate among blacks is 40 per cent, a statistic that weighs heavily on the new director. Some media lump in Spence among bleeding heart liberals who think the education system has to bend over backward to accommodate such disadvantaged groups in the education system, chief among them young black males. Not true. Spence doesn’t believe anyone gets to hide behind their skin colour, or any other circumstance, as an excuse to fail at school.

Spence’s own background is substantially different from most of these kids. His father was an engineer; his mom a nurse. He had a supportive older brother (now an investment banker) and little sister (now a TDSB principal, on leave to York University). In On Task! On a Mission!: A Year in the Life of a Middle School Principal he laments that 90 per cent of black boys want to become professional athletes, noting, “It becomes a problem when educators start believing that black kids are simply not able or interested in succeeding academically and that sports is their best shot.”

Doing the math: Many can’t

York University has launched a task force to look at why half of first-year students taking math fail or drop out, wrote the Toronto Star Dec. 7. Other universities have offered remedial programs to students before they even set foot on campus.

Photos provide insights into life experiences of LGBTQ youth

A study of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) youth, based on photographs they took showing things that represent their experiences living in Waterloo Region, emerged out of findings from the Toronto Teen Survey, a similar project Robb Travers conducted this year with colleagues from York University, wrote the Guelph Mercury Dec. 5 in a story about a study by  Travers, a professor of community psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University. In that study, 1,200 Toronto teens were surveyed to study youth sexual-health needs.

Some of the more curious findings that came out of the Toronto Teen Survey, such as higher rates of high-risk sex and higher pregnancy rates among non-heterosexual teens, spurred Travers to conduct the TRUTH (Teens Resisting Urban Trans- and Homophobia) study.

Season of giving celebrated

Emma Genovese (BEd ’09), a Burlington resident and first-year kindergarten teacher at two elementary schools in Oakville – St. James and Holy Family – is continuing with a food drive that she began in 2008, wrote the Burlington Post Dec. 4.

Last year, Genovese was a student at York University attending teachers’ college when the school went on a lengthy strike. She started a local food drive in her neighbourhood and collected 500 items for the Salvation Army.

She is doing the drive once again but this time it is a combined neighbourhood and school effort as the food is also coming from some of her students.

Will they save the world or save face?

Looming in the way of really doing something [at the 15th annual United Nations conference on climate change] is a hard fact, wrote the Toronto Star Dec. 5.

As York University ecological economist Peter Victor, professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, puts it, “Climate change is one of the hardest problems to solve, so there’s a great incentive to sit back and let somebody else go first.”

Can Cotler, Kenney be friends?

Jason Kenney dismisses as “ridiculous” Irwin Cotler’s complaint (and the Commons Speaker’s ruling) that the Tory pamphlet in his riding damaged his “reputation and credibility”, wrote Leo Panitch, Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy, in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, in the Toronto Star Dec. 5.

I hope Cotler will now have the integrity to demand that Kenney resign as his co-chair on the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism. This is in fact long overdue, since Kenney has done far worse to damage the reputation and credibility of Canadian universities such as my own by alleging that protests on campuses against Israel’s policies resemble “pogroms”.

Indeed, Cotler might consider changing the name and objective of his extra-parliamentary committee to Parliamentary Coalition to Combat False Charges of Anti-Semitism.

Youth getting high on prescription and over-the-counter drugs

The Centre for Addiction & Mental Health’s Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey is Canada’s longest-running school survey of adolescents, describing drug use and other health-related behaviours, and changes since 1977, wrote Kenora’s Daily Miner & News Dec. 5. During the 2008-2009 school year, 9,112 students in Grades 7 to 12 from 47 school boards, 181 schools and 573 classes participated in the survey administered by the Institute for Social Research at York University. This sample represents about 1,023,900 Ontario students in Grades 7 through 12.

Let there be light

These residential buildings are a diversion for the architects, who have worked on major projects such as the CDP Capital Building and the Quartier Internationale in Montreal, wrote the Montreal Gazette Dec. 5 in a story about architect Renée Daoust. They are currently designing the Centre for Excellence at York University and working on a master plan for the campus of Ryerson University.

“But no matter what we do, it’s always the same research,” Daoust said, “working with natural light, looking at the intrinsic personality of the site and trying to abolish the borders between inside and out – and between the disciplines of urban design, architecture and landscape architecture.”

Retiring judge praised for tact, humour

The judge they called “Boom Boom” for his ability to make quick decisions stepped down from the bench yesterday after 46 years in the field of law, wrote The Hamilton Spectator Dec. 5. Superior Court Justice Eugene Fedak (LLB ’61), who turns 75 on Wednesday, was appointed senior justice in Ontario’s south central region in 1992.

Fedak was lauded by members of the local bench and bar during a retirement ceremony as a man of consummate grace whose judgments demonstrated wisdom and mercy in equal measure.

After graduating from McMaster University, Fedak attended Osgoode Hall Law School and was called to the bar in 1963.

Hockey refs fear for game, own safety

In a survey done by 62 of the league’s top under-17 players last year, all but 12 said they fashion their play after the pros, wrote the Toronto Star Dec. 6. Nearly half of respondents said they had endured intimidation tactics including “verbal attacks”, “physical intimidation”, “trash talking” and “chirping”.

Still, the refs are often scapegoats. “We get what we tolerate,” says Paul Dennis, who worked for the Toronto Maple Leafs in player development for two decades and is now a sports psychologist teaching at York University and the University of Toronto.

Film showcases poverty in Peel Region

The Peel Poverty Action Group (PPAG) is inviting the public to view the first showing of a brief documentary highlighting poverty and homelessness in Peel Region, wrote the Brampton Guardian Dec. 6.

PPAG obtained a grant from The Ontario Trillium Foundation to produce the 15-minute video, created by a number of groups including a team from York University, the Social Planning Council of Peel and the region’s Human Services Department.

The film, titled Spaces and Place: Uncovering Homelessness in Peel Region, will be available for public viewing on Dec. 10, at 2pm, at Rose Theatre, 1 Theatre Lane, in Brampton.

His perspective on newspapers comes naturally

At 46, Jonathan Goodman (BA Hons. ’86) commands a leadership role in the global management consulting industry, wrote The Globe and Mail Dec. 7. From Toronto, he heads the North American advisory business of Monitor Group, a leading strategy consulting firm and one with its origins in Cambridge, Mass. But there is a part of Goodman that is forever rooted in journalism. A big piece of his consulting practice has always been in the media, and it comes naturally – his father, Martin, was a distinguished reporter, editor and executive at the Toronto Star, until his death in 1981 at age 46.

Were you ever a journalist? Goodman was asked. I worked for the Los Angeles Times, the Toronto Star and The Hamilton Spectator, and in that order. It was early in my overall career. Some of it was happening when I was still at university. It was a fairly unique trajectory.

Financial tips for parents

When your kids come along, get out the chequebook, wrote The Globe and Mail Dec. 7, in a story about financial advice for parents.

Dealing with mortality risk: “One of the first things I did when I found out my wife Edna was pregnant with my eldest daughter was to rush out and get some life insurance,” notes Professor Moshe Milevsky of the Schulich School of Business at York University, in his book, Wealth Logic. Or you can self-insure as Milevsky’s father did – except it might be better to save before the kids arrive.

Ottawa man awaits space trip after making reservation for US$200,000 flight

After studying space physics in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering and learning how to fly, John Criswick’s childhood dream of becoming an astronaut was shattered in 1992 when he did not get selected by the Canadian Space Agency, wrote The Canadian Press Dec. 6.

But the CEO of Magmic Games should finally get his chance to go into space within the next two years – although it will cost him US$200,000. The Canadian businessperson has booked a space flight with Virgin Galactic, one of many companies belonging to tycoon Richard Branson.

“It’s going to be in my lifetime,” Criswick (MSc ’94), 46, told The Canadian Press, adding he had “a lot of confidence in what Virgin Galactic was doing. I’ll be ready to go in 2011, 2012.”

On air

  • Paul Delaney, professor of physics & astronomy in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, spoke about evidence NASA uses to support the claim that there was once life on Mars, on CTV’s “Canada AM” Dec. 4.
  • Paul James, master coach of York’s soccer Lions, spoke about the 2010 World Cup, on CTV News Dec. 4.
  • Alan Middleton, marketing professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University, spoke about the latest marketing promotions by the Bay, on Global TV Dec. 5.
  • Stuart Shanker, Distinguished Research Professor in Psychology and Philosophy in York’s Faculty of Health and director of the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative at York University, spoke about early childhood brain development, on CBC Radio’s “Ideas” program Dec. 4.