________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 41. . . .June 25, 2010.


Achieving, Believing and Caring: Doing Whatever It Takes to Create Successful Schools

Christopher M. Spence.
Markham, ON: Pembroke Publishers, 2009.
128 pp., pbk., $24.95.
ISBN 978-1-55138-248-7.

Subject Headings:
Educational leadership.
School management and organization.

Professional: Kindergarten-grade 12 Administrators and Teachers

Review by Betty Klassen.





We must be honest about the fact that, while our educational system is extraordinary in so many respects, it is riddled with outrageous disparities. Children from low-income and minority communities face unconscionable educational inequities. And what does the future hold for individuals who are constrained by an inadequate education? The research is clear: They are more likely to live their entire lives in poverty, more likely to lack adequate health care, and more likely to be incarcerated.

Do these harsh statistical realities arise because children who happen to be born into low-income communities are inherently less capable than their more affluent peers? Those of us who have worked in the classrooms on the front lines of the achievement gap know that nothing could be more false. The truth is that our students’ potential to succeed is nothing less than extraordinary. The critical question of our time, then, is how do we tap that potential and ensure high levels of achievement for all children?

What I believe is that strong teaching and effective school leadership are key and that high expectations, like low expectations, are a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe that we can eliminate the inequities that still plague our education system. Every day that we allow these inequities to continue, we turn our backs on those who deserve our attention the most.

Christopher Spence writes with a passion evoked by his personal experiences as a teacher, a principal and a director of education. This book is a moving plea to work towards making a difference for those students and families that are the most vulnerable – Canada’s inner-city schools and communities. He advocates for developing community schools that show CARE – Caring, Accepting, Respecting and Engaging the young people who enter. This acronym states the goal of the book which is to draw all those involved with high risk children to work together to support and improve student learning, strengthen their families, and build healthier communities. Spence uses the introduction to make the case for “revamping” our approach to teaching and learning through courageous leadership to create schools that children want to attend; schools that develop both academic and non-academic competencies; schools that provide services to families so that the most vulnerable children in our society have a CAREing place to learn.

     The introduction also makes the structure of the book explicit, stating that the first 3 chapters identify and discuss characteristics of schools that show CARE, and chapters 4 to 6 provide examples of such schools. These chapters are followed by a conclusion and comprehensive list of criteria to assess the degree to which schools show CARE, an extensive six page reference list, and a useful index.

     Spence has crafted a balanced look at the challenges of teaching high risk youth by providing sobering statistics, some of his own experiences and research of many respected educators, such as Nel Noddings and Rick Stiggins. He provides many strategies to enable us to create schools with a student-centred culture, ways to build relationships, and develop practices that serve the students’ best interests. Spence takes issue with the policy of “zero tolerance” for violent or anti-social behaviors, advocating instead for decisions made on a case by case basis, more caring alternatives that facilitate social and academic engagement, such as anti-violence, peer mediation and anti-bullying programs.

     A significant omission of this book is that, while Spence elaborates on understanding boys at risk, most of his discussion focuses on Black males, and no mention is ever made of the number of Aboriginal males in our penal system, who are also dropping out of school, living in fatherless homes and living in poverty. Teaching and learning with CARE outlines a vision of a skilled and positive approach to teaching that encompasses differentiation, building supportive relationships, developing curriculum for the “whole child,” health care, sports, arts, and common assessment. Spence concludes this chapter by discussing the benefits of collaboration to build the professional learning capacity of teachers, parental involvement and learning, and engaging the community.

     Transformational leadership is required to create a school climate that is equitable and that is a “better space for everyone.” A wraparound model integrates quality education with community services in a way that fits the services to the needs of the children instead of fitting the children into the programs. Numerous examples of how a school can work with the community are included; criteria for a community school and the associated costs are listed.

     Part two of this book moves from the sobering look of the need to change our educational approach, to inspiring examples of educators who have and are transforming their schools and communities. Spence’s examples range across most of Canada from Edmonton to Halifax. He grounds his discussion in a range of studies from the Coleman Report (1972) to Hulley and Dier (2008). This latter study investigated more than 40 schools to find the best planning processes, and they identified seven interrelated characteristics of effective schools. (The date and reference for this publication has been omitted from Spence’s reference list, but a Google search provided some additional information.)

     We can all learn from the vision and commitment to youth that the cases included in the remainder of this book exemplify. Christine Penner, the Vice-principal of St. John’s High School in Winnipeg, showed CARE for the students, their families and their community by deciding to visit the 459 homes of all the grade 7 and 8 students. The result of spending three weeks visiting homes was 170 parents at the first parent meeting, instead of the usual four or five, 20 parents signing up to volunteer, monthly parent meetings, a 20% reduction of suspensions and improved morale in the school and community.

     Spence has included six other cases of schools that show CARE, sixteen programs that show CARE and seven examples of individual teachers who have shown CARE, making this an inspiring read and creating within us a hope and vision for a more just future.

Highly Recommended.

Betty Klassen teaches in the Faculty of Education in the Middle Years Program at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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