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ALPHA Alternative School, one of the oldest alternative schools in Canada, was founded in 1972 by a group of parents who wanted to educate their children in keeping with the progressive ideas and movements of the day, particularly the free school movement. ALPHA—A Lot of Parents Hoping for an Alternative—was unique in the Toronto public school system when it was founded, with no homework, no grades, and no tests. While the school has seen some major changes over the past forty-plus years, it has remained steadfast in its refusal to take part in an educational culture based on the judgment of children. ALPHA graduate Ariel Fielding sat down for a chat with school staff past and present: retired teachers Sue Hess and Karen Light, current teachers Emily Chan and Steve Cooper, and school coordinator and historian Deb O’Rourke. Since 1977, ALPHA has been in the former Brant St. School in the west end of downtown Toronto. It was once at the centre of a bustling garment district, and is now surrounded by a fast-rising sea of condo development.

Ariel Fielding: Deb, you wrote your M.Ed. thesis on ALPHA, and you’ve been here for a long time. Tell me how ALPHA got started. What’s the philosophy behind the school?

Deb O’Rourke, ALPHA Alternative SchoolDeb O’Rourke: I tried to get the perspectives of a lot of people on ALPHA’s history, and the greatest common bond among the founders was a feeling that school should not be artificially separated from parenting and family life. They deeply wanted to be involved in their children’s education. They were very influenced by radical education critique of the time, including the Hall-Dennis report, commissioned by the Ontario Ministry of Education in 1965, a close investigation of various kinds of progressive education happening all over the world. The report was a blueprint for implementing John Dewey’s original ideas for how education can fulfill democracy. It was very detailed and conscientious, the consensus of mostly upper-middle-class professional Ontarians who had an interest in education. The founders were also influenced by the critiques of people like John Holt and Ivan Illich, and by the example of Summerhill and the free school movement that it inspired. That represents a whole range of how you could actually work with kids, and as far as I can tell there’s never been real consensus at ALPHA about what that looks like. Every teacher needs to practice according to their conscience, every parent comes to the school with different hopes and visions, and the kids are kids. I think it’s actually the needs of the kids that tend to bring the adults together over time, when they have a longtime commitment to the school. But it’s always a journey.

Ariel: I want to ask all of you how you came to ALPHA and what drew you here.

Sue Hess: There were no jobs in Toronto. I was babysitting a family across the street from my brother, and their kids went here, and a job came up here as a secretary, paid by the parents—they wanted a teacher, but they got a secretary. There were no jobs in Toronto when I came back from teachers’ college in BC, so I applied for that job. I had taught on a reserve in northern British Columbia, and I’d taught at a one-room schoolhouse that some parents had started in Orangeville. My background was alternative, but I didn’t have any specific alternative education. My teaching program was totally alternative—I had worked with low-income students in Vancouver all year—but I really didn’t have any idea about alternative schools.

Ariel: Was it a trial by fire?

Sue: Back in 1981 it was. Right now it would probably be a lot easier for a teacher, but back then it was different. The kids were a lot more empowered, and the parents were also in the school more, so there was more to deal with back then. It’s changed a lot.

Karen Light: Like Sue, when I finished teachers’ college there were no jobs. There hadn’t been any hirings for eleven years. There was an ad in the paper for five half-time jobs, temporary long-term occasionals, and I applied for all of them. One of them was ALPHA—I was very apprehensive about it. I had a neighbour who had come here, and she said things like, “They make their own rules,” and I, like a lot of the public, was—

Sue: Horrified?

Karen: Yes, I stereotyped the place. I was prejudiced about it. It’s almost like ALPHA picked me. I was very apprehensive, but it was an absolute hundred-percent fit. My whole life has been alternative: I come from quite a liberal family, and I’d come from Campus Co-op Daycare, which was an alternative daycare with a lot of parent involvement. Other than supply teaching, I’ve never worked in a school that wasn’t alternative.

Ariel: What was it like when you got here? What were the elements of ALPHA that meshed with who you were at the time?

Karen: One of my biggest fears was to be called Miss Light, and I remember talking to Ann Lacey, who worked upstairs from ALPHA at Downtown Alternative School, and she said, “That’ll be the least of your worries!” But I never was called Miss Light. I just wanted to be here with the kids. Even though part of me yearned for a little classroom and all the little things that go with it, this was my idea: listening to children, approaching children, and letting them tell you what they want to do. I’m not really a top-down, control the kid teacher. I had [longtime teacher] Susan Garrard here to mentor me. Even years later I would go to her for advice. I was really lucky to have her, because she taught me so much. I still have words from her echoing in my ear. She let me do my little things. I would set up a centre and think, “It’s so great! I set up a centre!” I came back from BC and I had all these claws and shells and everything, and I remember nobody paid much attention to it. But she allowed me to make my own mistakes while still guiding me. It took me years to understand what was going on. Over the years I would have to be reminded by people like Susan or Debbie or Sue of the big picture. I’d go to meetings and hear people argue, and Susan would say in a soothing tone, “That’s the way we work things out. Things get worked out. Conflict produces change.” And I’d just relax.

Deb: I am not a trained teacher, and I came to ALPHA in 1985 as a parent of a four-year-old. As a teenager I had been an activist with an organization called Educational Youth Enterprises (EYE) that tried to start a free school in Calgary. We were in communication with the young people who were starting SEED in Toronto, which was then a summer project. That inspired our summer project in Calgary, but there wasn’t the support to turn it into a school. By the time I was in Toronto and was a parent, I assumed that that movement had died, but fellow artists told me about this school, and I recognized it the minute I came in and talked to Susan Garrard. We were very committed from the time my kid came in at four to the time he left at the end of grade eight. About ten years after he graduated, I started applying for work at ALPHA. I knew how hard it was to work here. I used to be a demanding ALPHA parent myself, and as a committed parent I was exhausted after ten years of helping the school to survive. So it was out of desperation that I applied. I got turned down twice by the hiring committee —

Karen: You didn’t do interviews well—that was the only reason.

Deb: I went back to school to get a Master’s in Education, because I thought that could be useful. I had been a professional artist for thirty years, and finally lost any ability to pull money out of that profession. I really hoped I could document ALPHA, and that would keep me interested in going to school. In my first couple of weeks at York University I ran into Steve, who was doing the principals’ course at the time, and he said, “Hey Deb, the position’s open again!” and I said, “Forget it, they don’t want me.” He said, “They’ll hire you this time.” So I insisted that I be interviewed by the whole parent community. They did hire me, and I’ve been here ever since. I have my Master’s now, but I could never be an educator in any sense without being in collaboration with people like Karen, Steve, Sue, and Emily. I never considered teaching as a profession because I can’t take responsibility for twenty to thirty kids at a time. I do my best to support the students, teachers, and parents.

Ariel: Can you describe what your role is here?

Deb: I’m the Volunteer Coordinator, so a lot of what I do is adult education. It’s encouraging parents to learn the way their kids learn: proactively, both independently and cooperatively. They will often demand to be instructed, even as their kids are learning independently. It was quite a demoralized school when I arrived because it had been through an awful lot of trouble with the Board, and the community was really exhausted. I think one reason they didn’t hire me initially is because I saw that they needed community development, that I couldn’t solve their problem in one year. I have welcomed people year by year into the school, encouraging them to feel like a part of the school even if they can’t be here much. I’m a resource for parents so they don’t always have to run to the teachers—because the teachers need to focus on the kids. Like everybody, I pitch in and help with the kids too. That’s part of the role-modelling, part of ALPHA’s reason for existence.

Steve Cooper, ALPHA Alternative SchoolSteve: It took me a while to get to ALPHA. I was working in Montreal in theatre, but I didn’t have much money, so I went to teachers’ college. I worked for one year in a mainstream high school in Northern Quebec, and that was enough to tell me that I wasn’t suited to mainstream education. I didn’t know much about alternative schools, so I seized upon special education, because I realized that in special ed you have to figure out different ways of working. There weren’t many jobs around, but there were some openings in special ed, so I got hired to Toronto and worked in a mainstream school for five years. I always had alternative education in the back of my mind. Meanwhile I had started a family, and we were with a bunch of people living in the east end of Toronto who wanted to start our own school. Because I had an interest in alternative schools, I did visit ALPHA while I was teaching in a mainstream school. I came when ALPHA was having a hard time. It seemed like a school that was on its last legs [because teacher Susan Garrard was gravely ill]. I got hired to go to Downtown Alternative School for a year, which seemed like it was much more together. But DAS was starting to have its own crises, because of alternative school politics. Our alternative school group in Riverdale realized that the kind of school we wanted to start was just like ALPHA anyway, so a job came open and I jumped ship and came to ALPHA. I didn’t realize that ALPHA’s crisis was the result of Susan’s illness. I was to be her replacement. I didn’t realize the level of anxiety in the community around that, how treasured a teacher she was and how much was expected of me. I didn’t realize I was stepping into such big shoes.

Ariel: Karen, you said that there are still some things that echo in your mind about what Susan taught you.

Karen: One of the things that I remember hearing from Susan was that there was room within the school for differences. I have this picture of ALPHA as being a wheel, and the wheel has all these spokes, which are the people and what we do here. Inside the wheel at the hub is the philosophy, the charter which has been written down, and I think that’s the difference between our school and other alternative schools, is that they don’t have these spokes that have to comply with the centre. Now, there’s room for some of these spokes to be bent, like in a bicycle wheel, but if too many of them are then you always go back to the charter, and that saved us many times. Steve, your impression was that this place was really having a hard time, and it looked like it was near the end. Well, we knew that it wasn’t. At first I was very scared by conflict, but we always got through it because of the philosophy and the charter. When we were fighting the requirement to give report cards, we turned to the charter, which says, “We will not stand in judgment of our children.”

Sue: Susan was a very optimistic person, she always had a smile on her face. Even when dealing with very difficult parents or difficult situations, she had a way of making it seem like it was going to be okay. For a lot of people, she was a real mother figure, she was there to smooth things out, and she always did. She took a lot of time away from her job. She was often not in the classroom with the kids because she was dealing with some school-related issue, and someone would have to take her place for a while. She spent a lot of time doing that—making sure everyone believed it would be fine.

Karen: And explaining to parents what was going on, because she saw the big picture.

Sue: She took the time to do that. Even today, all staff at ALPHA have to take the time to talk to parents, to talk to anyone who comes in, to make sure that they understand. That’s a crucial part of the school, making sure people aren’t left floundering, wondering, “Is this really how things work?” If someone just takes the time to talk to them, it’s so much better, and that’s what Susan always did.

Karen: I remember her telling me that that one of the main things about the philosophy was problem-solving. We are mandated to solve problems, which is one of the things that makes working here so difficult.

Steve: We don’t solve every one. Sometimes things are just too big. We try really hard, though, and we model that tenacity.

Deb: One thing I remember Susan saying time and time again is, “Trust the kids.” That’s really fundamental to ALPHA. On my first field trip with Susan, we went to Riverdale Farm, and we took the King Car out to where the hill goes down to the Don River. The kids poured out of the streetcar, and I was trying to keep my eye on all my little chickens, and all of a sudden they all lit out and ran down the hill. I was panicking. “Don’t worry,” she said. “They’re not stupid. They stick together. They know the routine. They’ll wait for us at the bottom.” There were so many times when she would point out that the kids are not insane, and she always put her faith and her trust in the kids. But there was a lot of work that went into it, a lot of support for the children and their problem-solving processes. One thing that gave me faith in ALPHA was that there wasn’t this sense of fake helplessness among adults that some people at the time got into. Adults take their responsibilities seriously. Kids need us.

Emily Chan, ALPHA Alternative SchoolEmily: I resisted becoming a teacher for a long time, because I was afraid of becoming a fascist. So I always liked to be a guest in the schools—I would be a guest educator, a guest artist working with kids. A really good friend of mine was a parent at ALPHA for years, and we were pen pals when I lived in New York. She would send me chapters of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, and she would talk to me about her unschooling project with her kid, and then she found ALPHA. The first time I was here was when I was performing in her taiko ensemble. Then I became an intern here—I worked with Steve and Sue and Ryan. Very slowly, ALPHA entered my life, and now my whole life is here. I’m a parent here as well as a teacher, and I’ve changed a lot as a teacher, trying to shake off the mark that teachers’ college left on me. I think the most important part about being a teacher at ALPHA is being nonjudgmental. That goes with trust, having trust in kids, understanding that they’re growing, they’re changing, they’re evolving, and that we have to be with them while they grow and change and evolve. Kids may show some very undesirable parts of themselves while growing up, and we have to recognize that that is part of their growing, and we can’t judge them for that, but we can help them along. This year has been a really solid year, and it’s also been kind of tricky because we have had a lot of new teachers. The hardest part has been seeing how some teaching practices do connect with fundamental principles of ALPHA, and how some teaching practices really don’t. I would say that teachers in general tend to be judgmental. When you’re driven by marks and grades and competition, by behaviour management and behaviourist approaches to discipline, it’s based in not having trust in kids.

Ariel: Is that the mark that teachers’ college left on you? Do you think most teachers are indoctrinated in that way?

Emily: I think so. In teachers’ college you’re taught to be an authority, and that’s really problematic, because here you have to embrace your natural authority, but you also have to be able to let that go. It’s ageism, too—I don’t want to pin it all on teachers’ college. There are all kinds of things playing into that sense of judging someone, of not trusting.

Ariel: You’ve brought up something that’s been on my mind. Regardless of philosophy, most alternative schools want children to engage in some degree of self-directed learning. But the adults who are around may not always trust themselves—they may back away from facilitating self-directed learning for fear of being coercive. How do you negotiate that?

Karen: When I went to teachers’ college, I found the opposite. I felt I’d get out of teachers’ college what I put in, so I read the Ontario Ministry of Education guidelines, and they were brilliant. They were in tune with ALPHA’S philosophy: all children learn their own way, all children should develop at their own speed, individualized education—all that wonderful stuff. But then I would go out to my teaching assignments, and they weren’t doing those things. They were treating students like a uniform lump and teaching them all the same page of math. That was a real problem for me. When I came to ALPHA, I realized that ALPHA was doing what I learned in teachers’ college from the Ministry guidelines. I also remember going to a conference in my early years, and they were telling us about research that had been done proving that children do not succeed when they’re judged, children do not succeed when they’re separated into little groups by grade, they do better with parent involvement—all this proof of what we do. They were announcing it to us like [it was something new]. And then they said, “Now, of course we could never do that!” [Ariel laughs] But the keynote speaker in this big conference explained how you could incorporate selected findings of the research. I just sat there, dumbfounded. This was in my first couple of years at ALPHA, and I looked at these speakers and I thought, “They don’t even know this is being done! We don’t give report cards, and they don’t even know.”

Steve: Pedagogically, we don’t do anything that different from the mainstream. I don’t think ALPHA has anything to teach other schools about teaching techniques.

Emily: But we don’t use teacher authority to discipline kids. That’s a democratic process, a committee-based process, and where the teachers come in is that we facilitate. In terms of balancing the tendency to be an authority or to be a leader, you find yourself as a facilitator. You are helping to guide kids towards the process we believe in as a school. I think that’s huge. I think that does set us apart pedagogically, because we value kids resolving conflicts. We value the idea that conflict deepens community.

Sue: You have to relinquish some control in a school like this. That means that the parents get more control and the kids get more control. In the regular system I think there’s a real fear about doing that.

Emily: Deb’s said to me that the way we talk about leadership is “sharing leadership”— with kids, with parents, with our colleagues. That takes time.

Deb: If parents had more patience, we could give the kids more control. A lot of our interventions happen when we know kids ought to have a little more time, ought to work it out themselves, but we know parents are going to panic if they don’t see us intervening—I’m speaking mostly of behavioural issues. Every kid goes through some ugly periods. Even the sweetest are very egocentric.

ALPHA’s always responding to change. I remember A.S. Neill of Summerhill saying that he had no new ways of teaching kids, because when kids are ready to learn, they’ll learn any way you teach them. That’s always been ALPHA’s way. Sure, we teach times-tables here, we use phonics, we use stories. ALPHA can be very straightforward—you don’t have to sugar-coat learning when you truly value it. Former teacher Ryan Slashinsky and I were influenced by Jonathan Kozol’s perspective on urban free-schooling. To respond to the needs of families from all different incomes and social classes, and the fact that they don’t control their lives and the kids can be whisked away at any time, we needed to be more proactive in terms of literacy and numeracy than we were when my kid went to ALPHA. We’ve been working out ways to do that without excessive coercion. It’s been a real process.

Emily: We’ve done it with a mind towards anti-bias education. Imagine a circular path that begins in the centre, starting with the kid’s passions. We begin by learning about their interests and writing or reading about them. We then make connections between kids about their families, using that as an entry point to talk about diversity. If we continue on the path, we try to relate a kid’s interests with what’s going on in the world, thereby weaving the idea of community with a kid’s sense of self.

Ariel: The idea of anti-bias education sounds quite innovative. A number of teachers I’ve talked with have spoken about schools as centers of innovation that have had a significant influence on mainstream education. How can alternative schools continue to be the innovators?

Sue: I think any time mainstream educators are exposed to alternative schools—learning about the way they work, that exposure helps mainstream teachers to realize that they can do things differently. There are also huge waiting lists for most alternative schools—that tells the Board of Education a lot.

Steve: ALPHA was innovative from its inception, and we’re constantly reinventing ourselves. We came up with something new this year, what we call “alternative gym.” We realized that there were a number of kids who sat around and didn’t do much. We weren’t serving their needs. We added alternative gym, and it’s focused on dance, fitness, and learning the rules of sports. It’s been a big success. The kids who didn’t like to go to gym before are learning salsa this week.

Emily: It’s amazing: swing, foxtrot, and cha-cha-cha. This mom who is teaching them dance says, “Swing goes really well with Green Day. Foxtrot is perfect with Coldplay.” She brings in all this contemporary music, and the kids create a playlist.

The other piece is that there was a gender issue. One gender was really dominating our cooperative/competitive games, and another gender wasn’t feeling very good about being physical. That was why we came up with this new fitness program.

Karen: The school adjusted and changed, but you didn’t force anybody to do it, right?

Steve: The kids get to choose where they want to go. We’ve got seven-year-olds going off to gym with eleven-year-olds to play dodgeball.

Emily: Which I was really afraid of. I don’t want to see the youngest kids get obliterated. But because they all want to play, you don’t end up having that.

Steve: ALPHA is based on cooperative decision-making, with the teachers and parents and the kids as part of the equation, and that means we’re innovating all the time.

Sue: The staff is always talking about new ideas. You sit and have your lunch and these ideas come out.

Karen: And everybody who comes adds different things.

Ariel: I’d like to circle back to my last question. A kid by virtue of being a kid doesn’t know all the things there are to know, and that’s why a kid goes to school. To what degree does an ALPHA teacher take the lead in deciding what the kids learn?

Steve: A strict interpretation of a free school might limit a teacher, because everything would have to come from the kids. We’ve been more flexible. What teachers teach best is what they really love. I love music, I do lots of music with the kids. With the parents, we’ve never shied away from saying, “Give us what you love. If you’re an expert on something, share it.”

Deb: Karen and I have done that with natural history. The youngest kids have a passion for nature and animals, and the ALPHA Museum gathers their discoveries and is a forum for all ages to look, touch, talk, write, make connections. Sharing your passions and interests is not an imposition if you’re not forcing everyone to sit down and listen to you.

Karen mentioned ALPHA’s founding document, its charter, and it’s incredible. I talked to some of the people who co-wrote it, and it was a really hard thing to write, and they were never sure about it. It’s up on the school website. It’s called The ALPHA Experience. It’s amazing how it keeps bringing us back to two main things: one is the need to work with and in consultation with community—the need to keep consulting and collaborating. The other is responding to the needs of the kids. Whatever people think of, dream of, whatever issues people bring in, it gets looked at through that lens, and it brings us back to democracy.

When I started working at ALPHA in 2004, it was a vulnerable time. The school had been struggling for its identity. Alternative Primary School closed the next year, and I was worried. One of the reasons ALPHA’s still here and still innovating is because of parental pressure. Not just ALPHA parents: the families who lobbied for the creation of the Grove, DaVinci, Equinox, and the Africentric School helped to head off the closing of the older schools. It’s only constant parental pressure that’s going to keep at bay the bureaucracy’s need to have every school identical. In the 1980s the Ministry of Education visited every alternative school for a few days. Their report concluded, in effect, “This is fabulous, alternative schools are wonderful, but you have to start to conform more.” That was an indication of their decision not to learn from alternative schools. ALPHA was conceived in good part to try out educational strategies that were compatible with research and developmental psychology, but foreign to the system. It’s not a real experiment, because everyone wants these kids to thrive and will respond to their needs. Early on, everyone was behind the kids and working hard, saying at the same time, “We want the system to be able to learn from us.” The system said, “You’re doing great. We’re not going to learn from you.”

Karen: I’ve always been very apprehensive about teaching other schools how we do things because they don’t really understand until they’ve been inside the place and become a part of it.

Emily: There is a struggle with innovation. To be able to innovate as a school, we have to feel valued as teachers. As soon as that sense is threatened, it is really hard to continue to be inspired, even if our inspiration comes from the kids, and we believe in the democratic environment, and we believe in maintaining an optimistic outlook. We’ve been very lucky, but in the short time I’ve been here I’ve seen how damaging an unsupportive administration can be.

Steve: In some ways, ALPHA hangs by a thread. ALPHA survives as it is because the staff believe in it. You could get a principal in here who says, “Look, you’re not complying. You have to follow all the rules.” ALPHA could cease to be ALPHA overnight.

Karen: It couldn’t happen overnight. No way!

Emily: You could have a few more parents than normal who say, “You know what? I think that standardized testing wouldn’t be such a bad idea.” A few more parents who think, “Our older kids really should be getting more homework and practice tests.”

Karen: I don’t agree that it would happen. We’ve been through those crises before.

Emily: I want to say one more thing about innovation. For me, being inspired as an ALPHA teacher partly comes from the bond that I feel with all ALPHA teachers past and present. Keeping that feeling of family among us as staff keeps me going, it keeps me really inspired when things are more challenging. You’re seeing things in the long term, and that’s what keeps the inspiration for innovation alive.

Ariel: It sounds like there is a connection, in the particular kind of democracy that’s practiced here, between sharing your power and sharing your passions and interests. I’ve never really thought of that as part of democracy, but it’s starting to occur to me that maybe that’s an essential element: people sharing what they love.

Emily: Because we love each other, because we love the kids, because we believe in the school.

Karen: Because we hang out together. I’ve been at schools, alternative schools even, where staff don’t sit together at lunch or after school.

Emily: It’s the idea of community: breaking bread, being able to be together, even when you’re in conflict. I’ll never forget one of the first lunches I came to in the staff room as an intern. I saw the teachers here go head-on into a conflict, respectfully, then sort it out and and still eat lunch together.

Steve: When we were doing interviews recently to fill a teaching job, one of the things we said to the candidates was, “You can be the kind of teacher you want to be at ALPHA.” It’s one of the greatest things about working here.

Karen: But you’re still part of the community. I remember having a conference, which is one of the crucial things we do with the kids—instead of report cards we do conferences with the kids leading. There was this parent who talked as if the teachers were the most important people in the school. He had it wrong. We’re only one small part of this school. It’s the community, the teachers, the parents, the kids, the philosophy. It’s so much bigger than the sum of the parts.

Deb: Both as a parent and as a staff member I’ve seen a few new staff come in. Some will look at someone like Susan or Sue, and they’ll start learning right away. Those folks, whatever their practice is, they’re going to fit in. They’re going to be able to bring their conscience and their own best practices to the school. But there are some who come in here with a program, and they don’t even look at the other people. Parents do that too sometimes—there are actually some parents who come in and have no idea that it’s mostly community teaching their kid. They don’t bring their kid in much, then they worry when their kid isn’t fitting in. Often they want their kid to be waited on. They think that democracy means being able to do whatever you want. They don’t realize that democracy is living in community.

Sue: Parents are often looking for something themselves. In a lot of cases the parents here did not have a good time when they were in school. There are parents who give up a lot of time, who structure their work lives around spending time at the school. In this day and age, that’s hard. Parents are often really sad to leave when their kids are done here; it’s their community too.

Alpha Alternative School teachers and volunteers

Interviewed on Dec. 20, 2013