Toronto's Alternative Schools: Survivors of the Common Sense Revolution

Article excerpt

High school student Debbie Rachlis arrives at my table at the Future Bakery & Cafe on Toronto's Bloor Street at 1:30 in the afternoon. This popular hang-out for university and high-school students is convenient for her: after we've finished this interview, she'll go straight to school and it will take her less than a minute to get there. Today, she is an OAC student at Subway Academy II, an alternative high school located right above Futures. Rachlis is also a former student of a school called Inglenook Alternative.

Confident and unselfconscious in a way that is strikingly different from the uneasy sense of self I projected as a student in a mainstream high school, Rachlis is happy to talk. The subject in question is the effect of the Conservative provincial government's so-called Common Sense Revolution on Toronto's distinctive alternative school program.

"There's definitely a feeling of being watched for being political or wacky," she tells me.

POLITICAL AND WACKY

That's a good way to describe the original intention of alternative schools. Harry Smaller, a professor in York University's Faculty of Education, taught in several regular schools in the Toronto Board of Education before helping to found some of the city's first alternative schools. He says that the alternative schools first arose from the so-called "wacky" counter-culture of the 1960s.

In Toronto, this counter-culture formed around the Yorkville neighbourhood, which is now a Mercedes-Benz-packed commercial district of prohibitively expensive stores. In the 1960s, Yorkville played host to the hippie scene. It was in Yorkville that kids began turning on, tuning in and dropping out -- rebelling against what they saw as meaningless, authoritarian schooling. Some went on to form their own free schools, seeking advisors to volunteer as educational guides.

The very first alternative high schools were the projects of disenchanted, rebellious students. The first elementary schools were initiated by concerned, liberal parents. In both cases, these schools consisted primarily of middle- or upper-middle class children and parents looking for a more flexible, creative approach to education. For example, the name of ALPHA elementary school (which still exists today) is an acronym for "A Lot of People Hoping for Alternatives."

Eventually some of the free schools were incorporated into a program of the Toronto School Board, now part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), which had the highest number of alternative schools of any Ontario school board. Today, the TDSB describes its program as follows:

TDSB alternative schools offer students and parents something different from mainstream schooling. Each alternative school, whether elementary or secondary, has a distinct identity and approach to curriculum delivery along with a strong volunteer commitment from parents and other community members.

Originally, the alternative schools consisted mostly of white, middle-class students who were bored in the mainstream system. But eventually committed teachers began to develop different concepts for alternative schools. Smaller was a founder of CONTACT. Toronto's first inner-city alternative school geared to the needs of working-class youth. CONTACT and other alternative schools began to feature what he considers more relevant curricula, such as working-class history, black history and other topics generally ignored in the mainstream system. Later, Smaller helped to found both West End Alternative and OASIS, two other secondary alternative schools which also focussed on inner-city youth.

Today, the secondary schools are frequently an educational lifeline for teenage students at risk of dropping out due to learning disabilities, discipline issues, work and childcare responsibilities. Some of the students at Rachlis' school, for example, are young parents who would have difficulty getting their high-school diplomas without the flexibility offered by the alternative program. …