By Tim Johnson
The structure of a traditional classroom just wasn’t working for Dillon McManamy. The Toronto student, now in Grade 12, had attended a number of schools, but never really felt comfortable in any of them. It wasn’t a problem of intellectual capacity ““ he had been identified as a gifted learner when he was young. In Grade 9, Dillon and his parents had high hopes when he enrolled in a specialized arts program at a very large high school, but there, as in the past, his independent disposition and tendency to buck against structure, regimentation and authority proved a problem. “Things there were very cut and dried, there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion on people’s opinions on a topic,” says Dillon. “I was very vocal, and because I tried to push beyond what was presented, I was often criticized and penalized for sidetracking the class.” In Grade 10, Dillon dropped out of his fine arts program. “He considers his voice very important, and he didn’t feel like it was being heard,” remembers his mother, Paulette Hanson. Because of its location in their neighbourhood, Dillon and his family were aware of an alternative school known as SEED, (that’s short for Shared Exploration Experience and Discovery). Dillon started at SEED in Grade 11, and hit his stride quickly. “Immediately it seemed like such a radical place, and within the first week I’d already made some good friends,” he says.
SEED was founded in 1968 as the first public alternative secondary school in Canada. It began as a summer program where students actively guided their own education ““ which often took place out in the community, sometimes at the feet of luminary thinkers like famed educator Marshall McLuhan. After it was established, the alternative-schools movement began to spread ““ first within Toronto, then across the country. These schools were a product of the countercultural era, when traditional norms and structures were routinely challenged. “There was a feeling among the kids and most of the general population that we could do anything. I mean, this was a new world opening up,” says Murray Shukyn, SEED’s first coordinator. They drew inspiration and ideas from various sources, including England’s Summerhill School (a school that had a major influence on the alternative schools movement), where the primary values were flexibility, equality and freedom for students to learn as they chose and desired.
Alternative schools and programs (which sometimes go by other names and designations, including “mini-schools”) are still active within public school boards across Canada. New ones have continued to pop up, and old ones have evolved. Today’s alternatives have varying amounts in common with those original countercultural schools. In general, true alternative programs are characterized by small size, less structure and hierarchy, greater involvement of students in guiding their own learning, and a heightened sense of community, which sometimes includes increased parental participation. “There’s a very conscious effort to think about, “Okay, what are our educational goals, and then how do we structure this place to meet those goals’. So, for example, we might do different things with the timetable, or we might not even have a timetable,” says Margaret Wells, an instructor with a specialty in alternative schools at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Alternative schools are not available everywhere, especially in smaller cities and towns and rural areas, notes Frank Peters, a professor in the department of educational policy studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “If you have only one school for the whole community, you really don’t have much choice. If you have a whole load of schools, then you can have one focusing in one area, another in a different area, and so on.”
The Toronto District School Board, for example, has 34 elementary and secondary schools that fall under the alternative banner. Each has its own culture and emphasis, says Gabriela Kurzydlowski, a principal who oversees nine alternative secondary schools. Some are extremely academic, some are artistic, some emphasize social justice. Here, as elsewhere, students run the gamut from at-risk kids to the gifted and highly motivated, but are united by their inability to find a place in a more traditional environment. Since the schools are small, there’s an intimate community feel in each. “Everybody knows each other, and there’s tremendous support,” says Kurzydlowski. “What distinguishes these from mainstream schools is, above all, a personal approach. The small size allows for the care of the individual needs of the students.” In their early days, alternatives were given great freedom to operate and educate as they wished, something that has been restricted over the years by the imposition of a standardized provincial curriculum and other across-the-board codes of conduct, and the like. But while each program must follow the provincial curriculum, there is plenty of room for shaping and moulding it.
At SEED, the hub of its 55-member community is the student lounge, a room that would fit well in a university dorm, complete with mismatched, battered couches and a small adjoining kitchen. Evidence of the school’s flourishing art program hangs on the walls of the The Gallery, the school’s main hall. Students call teachers by their first names, and have input into courses, the timetable and the content, says curriculum leader Ellen Francis. For example, the provincial curriculum suggested an introductory course on psychology, anthropology and sociology, but the students chose gender politics as the topic of study.
In Winnipeg, alternative education is exclusive to the younger grades ““ it tops out at Grade 8. About three per cent of the students in that age bracket are in the Elementary Alternative Education Program and its middle-school sister, the Flexible Learning Program, says Celia Caetano-Gomes, who oversees it. Children are grouped into a class that combines a number of grades for their core subjects, and remain with the same classmates and the same teacher for two to three years. Having older students together with younger ones, she notes, means that they have an opportunity to coach and mentor one another. “They work together and become a community for learning,” she says. “And after three years in an alternative classroom, that teacher really knows your child.”
And this learning community includes parents. Much of the program is based on learning through experiences, and so it requires a commitment from parents to take their child on little field trips to enhance the in-class education. Word to the wise, says Caetano-Gomes, “You’re not only enrolling your child, you’re enrolling the whole family.” And parents are strongly encouraged to lend a hand in the classroom, too, adds Rosemarie Cloutis, whose has one daughter in Grade 4 and another who graduated from the program. “The program relies on having parents come in,” she says, noting that moms and dads will do everything from clerical work to background research on topics discussed in class.
Just as the program breaks down barriers between grades, and between the school and the community, it also does so between subjects. Learning tends to be thematic. “So if they’re doing flight, their art projects will be about birds, their writing will be stories about flying machines, and their science class will do a biology section on birds,” says Cloutis.
On the west coast, at Vancouver Technical Secondary School ““ a massive institution of some 1,700 students ““ there are a number of programs that could be considered “alternative.” Two of these, known as Summit and Flex, are enrichment programs that bear a likeness to the classic alternative model. Each, says principal David Derpak, has about 120 students in total, run from Grades 8 to 10, and is considered a “mini-school,” or school within a school. Again, students remain together for their core subjects and have the same teachers for three years. The similarity of academic skills among the students means that teachers can keep raising the bar and know the kids will keep up. Here, too, teaching tends to be thematic. “The teachers are all in cahoots with each other, and things overlap,” says Elizabeth McLaughlin, whose son, Fraser, is in his first year of Flex. And the students love the community created by the small size. “We’re there for each other,” says Grade 9 student Ivan Liu. “I think of them like a family.”
Back at SEED, Dillon McManamy is doing really well. His marks are up, says Hanson, and she no longer receives concerned phone calls home from teachers, a change from the past. “There were a lot of phone calls from some schools,” she remembers. Dillon’s very involved in school activities, and now, in his role as student leader, co-chairs the student meeting, a weekly huddle of teachers and students to discuss school issues and governance. The philosophy and environment at SEED, he says, makes it just the right place for him. “At SEED,” says Dillon, “you can learn things for yourself and figure out your own view of the world. Independence is the prime philosophy here.”
Toronto writer and editor Tim Johnson found that researching this story brought back memories of his own high school days, but he resisted the urge to revisit the music and fashion of the mid-’90s.
Charter… alternative… ever wonder exactly how these schools you’re hearing about stack up? Here’s a quick look at some schools that may share characteristics with alternatives.
Specialized schools This designation may, in certain cases, include alternative schools. However, in some boards, this term refers to schools that specialize in a certain discipline (sports, entrepreneurship, the arts), but don’t necessarily conform to the small size and community feel of a classic alternative.
Charter schools These are schools that are granted their own “charter,” which means they are run by a board that operates at arm’s length from a school board, or completely independently. They are largely an American phenomenon. In Canada, they exist only in Alberta, where they are publicly funded and may resemble the classic alternative model.
Magnet schools This is an informal term for a wide swath of schools that draw students from beyond their immediate neighbourhood. While an alternative school may indeed be a magnet school, it’s a term that’s used primarily in the United States.
Montessori schools Based on a method pioneered by Dr. Maria Montessori, these schools, mainly for younger children, value social interaction and the education of the whole personality. While certain alternatives may have drawn inspiration from this method, very few Montessori schools are publicly funded.
Waldorf schools Also called Steiner schools, these schools are based on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, and emphasize creative thinking, emotional intelligence, spiritual depth and physical vitality. While there may be philosophical overlap with alternative schools, Waldorf schools operate outside the public system.