David Burke's school life started to turn around the day an educator looked into his eyes and saw promise. Until that moment in Grade 6, on his first day at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic School in Scarborough, his experience had been painful.
He was the kid with a learning disability who struggled to read. He was the student who needed constant one-on-one help to do his school work. He floundered in a system that didn't recognize his creativity, determination and generous spirit, or accommodate his learning style.
David arrived at his new school three years ago with a thick file listing all his challenges, recalls his mother, Nicole Bourassa-Burke. The principal took one look at all the paperwork "and was determined to help David succeed."
The school applied for funding to get him a computer that would help him read and write so he could follow the curriculum. The boy soon discovered he loved history.
As David mastered his new equipment, teachers spotted his talent for technology. They set up a student tech team and put him on it. In short order, David was helping other kids learn on their computers, setting up interactive SmartBoards for teachers to use in classrooms and laptops for assembly presentations and overseeing photography and videos of school events. He became the school's go-to guy for all things digital.
Last year, in Grade 8, he was head of the tech team. Realizing that soon he would be off to high school, he set about training other kids to take over the reins.
David's special education teacher, Elyn Catli, nominated him for an award from the Toronto chapter of the Council for Exceptional Children, which advocates for kids with special needs. In her nomination letter, Catli noted that technology opened the door for a child who had "been silenced in class" with no outlet to demonstrate his learning.
"His achievements in technology have enabled him to express himself and give back to the community by his generous and selfless way of sharing," she wrote in the nomination letter, now framed on David's bedroom wall.
His contributions to the school "will be felt long after he graduates."
Last spring, David was presented with the council's "Yes I Can" award at a dinner at the National Yacht Club. In the fall, he received the council's provincial award at a lunch in London.
"It felt pretty good that I'd been nominated," says David, now 14 and in Grade 9 at Neil McNeil Catholic Secondary School. "It was good to feel appreciated."
Most parents know that one teacher can change a child's life. David had several.
"In this school, we try to identify a child's needs and strengths and work with that," says Tonya Williams, his classroom teacher in Grades 6 and 8.
The public school system can get caught up in red tape and the formal processes of assessing and diagnosing problems. Williams says her school's support team – which includes teachers, the principal and a school psychologist – tries to be proactive and also offers clubs and teams that allow kids to shine and learn new skills.
"We don't have to wait for (formal) identifications in order to help a child," she says.
While building on a student's strengths makes sense, a growing number of education advocates and psychologists worry that the process of qualifying for special ed support is too focused on identifying deficits.
They argue that creating resilient kids requires looking at the whole child and helping each understand and value his or her own particular learning style and talents.
To Bourassa-Burke, the dividends of that approach have been enormous for her son.
"They got a child with huge, huge difficulties and said, `Let's do the best we can for him.' He just blossomed under that and, in response, he gave back."
School is still tough for David but, with the help of assistive technology, he says he enjoys it.
"The most important thing about this is I think it has turned him into a lifelong learner," his mother says. "He wants to learn and he's not afraid to try."