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Horizon Alternative Senior School was started in downtown Toronto in 1981 as an offshoot of Spectrum, which itself was started by a group of teachers from a mainstream public school, Deer Park, who had decided they wanted to take learning outside the confines of the classroom. Horizon’s two-year program is based on experiential learning, and over the course of grades 7 and 8 students participate in all-school camping trips, travel, and months-long simulations such as building and running an entire town. The school, which has seventy-two students and four teachers, stays purposely small in order to maintain a strong sense of community. It cultivates independent learning, communication and problem-solving skills, and a sense of civic responsibility. Ariel Fielding and Michael Barker—a Horizon alumnus—talked to Brian Taylor, a founder of Spectrum; Ian Orr, a founder of both Spectrum and Horizon; and current teachers Nicole Aucoin and Eric Paisley.

Ariel: Tell me how Horizon got started. Who had the idea, and who got the school going?

Horizon teacher Brian TaylorBrian: We have to go back a bit. It started at Deer Park [Public School]. A guy named Dave Klein was teaching there with me and Ian. We were team-teaching and team-planning, and getting a lot of static from other teachers. We were much more flexible with kids. We tried to get our students out to the libraries and doing research and meeting up with experts. The feeling in the school was that the coming and going of our kids was upsetting other teachers’ kids. They wanted to transfer out of more traditional classrooms into our classes. So we thought we should move out of this place that didn’t support our ideas and start our own school. We went to the Toronto Board with the idea for Spectrum. The director of education came to the meeting and said that it’s the Board’s job to shut down small schools, not to open them. But the trustees were led by a guy named Beare Weatherup, who was brilliant.

Ariel: I know Beare—he was an ALPHA dad.

Brian: Beare said, “We’re the trustees. We’re going to start this school.” We started Spectrum in 1978 and ran it for a number of years, and we were under a lot of pressure to make it much larger or to separate it into two. So Dave went off to start Horizon with Ian and a teacher named Marvin. That’s how it began.

Ian: That was in 1981.

Ariel: When you started Spectrum was it primarily kids from the mainstream who were your first students?

Brian: Yes. Spectrum was the first alternative middle school in the city.

Nicole: One of the things that’s argued a lot at the alternative school council is the idea that alternative elementary school parents feel like they should get priority access to alternative senior school spots. That’s been an ongoing debate. For the parents, it makes perfect sense. They’ve bought into the alternative stream and they want to continue. The Board says there’s an equity issue. We’ve got a very specific program, but we want as many of our spots to be wide open as possible. We don’t want to be tied down to set numbers of spots being dedicated to specific schools. I assume it’s the same thing at every alternative senior school. We’re mandated by the Board to have a lottery system. We don’t have a choice.

Ariel: How many kids enter the lottery each year?

Horizon teacher Nicole AucoinNicole: We take thirty-six new grade 7 students every year, and we have seventy-two kids altogether. We get 150 to 200 applications a year for those thirty-six places. We have way more kids on the waiting list than we do in the whole school, never mind in the grade. That’s good, because our jobs are tied to those numbers. If you lose children, you lose teachers. For us, it’s two kids. If we drop down below seventy, then we lose our half-time teacher. We have to fight for her every year, and she’s our specialist art teacher, so we don’t want to lose her.

Michael: Do you ever consider enlarging the school?

Nicole: We get asked all the time why we’re not bigger and why we’re not expanding. There’s definitely demand. We want to be big enough to do some interesting stuff, but we want to be small enough to maintain a really tight relationship between not only the staff and the kids and the kids amongst themselves, but between the staff, too. The more people you put into the equation, the harder it is to maintain that level of connectedness.

Brian: There’s a critical mass for children. At around seventy-five, you can be a family. You can know everybody. You can care about everybody. But if you get too much larger, then people break up into separate groups. We didn’t want that. Everything we do—bike hikes and field trips and things like that—is designed to create cohesion.

Ariel: Tell me about the bike hike. How did that come to be?

Brian: [laughs] It was a teacher named Graham Dodd at Deer Park. Back in the 1970s he and Dave Klein decided that it’d be interesting to do a camping trip with the kids over a weekend. It never occurred to us to try and get school time to do it. We put them all on bikes, and we cycled to a farm that one of the parents had, and we had a good time.

Ian: Didn’t wash.

Brian: Then when we started Spectrum, it seemed like a great idea to continue the bike hike. Originally, we cycled from the city to Bruce’s Mill Conservation Area, which is actually quite substantial. But the traffic in the city got bad, and so we started out from the zoo and went from there, which was much less arduous.

Nicole: Then Highway 48 happened.

Brian: Then you couldn’t get to Bruce’s Mill without going on a major highway. Even though we did bicycle safety training, they’re not disciplined riders, children.

Ian: Too exciting to be out on an adventure like that.

Nicole: So the biking went, but the camping stayed. We’re still doing that.

Ariel: And it’s a once-a-year trip?

Nicole: Yes, three weeks in. It’s a major undertaking. The forms and supervision we have to produce are kind of overwhelming. I feel like we’re doing trips despite the Board. We’re not doing it necessarily with their …

Brian: Encouragement.

Nicole: They say they support trips, and they sign off on all the forms, but there’s a lot of hoops to jump through. My forms for next year’s September trip are already in in May, in the hopes that I’ll get them back by the end of the year. The campsite’s already booked, and we’re working on supervision, because it takes that long to get it organized. But last year was the first year ever we didn’t get to do bike hike, because we were on work-to-rule. For the first time, we couldn’t work out an accommodation with the union. We were forbidden to go away. I don’t want any of the kids to know this, but I really hate bike hike. It’s my job to make it sound really exciting and to make the kids love it, but as the adult in charge, it’s a huge amount of responsibility and organizing. Plus, it’s cold. It rains or snows every year. I don’t get to have a shower. It’s pretty miserable, all told, as an adult. But when we were told we couldn’t go, all of us sat around the office, devastated, because we couldn’t figure out how we would accomplish the same kind of bonding that we get out of surviving bike hike. It really does cement the kids as a school. It makes them feel like they can accomplish anything. We’ve morphed into a very academically enriched program. One of the things that we need the kids to be able to do is to embrace challenge and look at it as an opportunity, and to approach it thinking, “I can do this. I can figure this out.” Bike hike makes them feel powerful.

Eric: When the trip was cancelled we came up with an approximation of it. We had a variety of team-building activities that mimicked what bike hike does. But really, it wasn’t the same, because on bike hike you have to be organized enough to take stuff with you. And it’s those moments when you realize you don’t have that stuff that the problems start. Sometimes the discussion and negotiation is priceless to watch. They get really animated. They have to problem-solve.

Nicole: The benefits of bike hike are really hard to match. Without that experience they bonded, but not in the same way.

Brian: The epic quality was missing.

Nicole: The kids won’t even let us get rid of the name. We haven’t biked for 23 years. There really is no hiking to speak of. One year we suggested that perhaps we should come up with a new name, and they were so offended. The tradition gives them a structure that feels stable so they can feel free to take risks.

So they love that September is bike hike, and they love that in grade eight, in September, they do model UN, and that they’ll finish the year with Louis Riel in 1837 and the science fair. In alternating years, we do the Amazing Race, and we go on a big trip at the end of the year. I can change the content of model UN, but it has to be UN. And I can change the Amazing Race, but it has to happen. We can do whatever we want while we’re at bike hike, but it has to be bike hike, and it has to be in the fall. That’s really powerful in a way that I don’t think we quite grasp until we try to change something.

Michael: When I was a student here, those things changed my life, I can attest. I remember bike hike like it was yesterday, so it’s a system that works extremely well.

Ariel: It sounds like there’s quite a bit of activity that takes place outside the school that requires preparation on the part of both teachers and students. How do you balance that with the academic rigor that the school has developed?

Nicole: The whole program is designed to build on itself. Everything we do has a purpose and a goal. The kids also do more homework than is recommended. The Ministry says an hour a night at this level, and we’re averaging about an hour and a half. That gives us a little bit of flexibility. Everything we do takes more time than it does in a regular school. Any time you run a simulation, it takes more time than covering the unit from a textbook. But it’s time well spent. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing, and our long-range plans are developed as a team. If you join a small school and a small staff, you’re buying in to more work. It’s not that teachers in regular schools don’t work hard, but there are more of them.

Ian: And there’s also the advantage in a small school that things rub over from one part to another, whereas in a big school …

Nicole: You don’t get that continuity.

Ian: You don’t get that.

Nicole: We are all at every special event. We do every single trip. If we want teams, we’re coaching them. If we want clubs, we’re running them. The advantage of that is that we also control our schedule. Assuming you have a supportive principal, which we do, we do our own timetabling. As the lead teacher, I have time built in to do administrative tasks like filling out forms. I think administration was easier in the days when alternative schools first started.

Brian: Yes, there weren’t nearly as many forms, and if there were, we didn’t know about them. [all laugh]

Eric: It was easier to use events outside the school for teaching. One year, there was a rainstorm over on the Humber River, and one of the drains just spewed out this black ooze. I happened to witness it. I thought it would be awesome if I got the kids to come.

Ariel: To look at the ooze?

Eric: Yeah! To see what runoff looks like and talk about what it is and where it comes from. Within a week, there was another storm. There were two forms to fill out. All the kids brought them back, and we went. Now it’s six forms, and you have to have them in a month ahead of time. You can’t do that and still be responsive.

Ariel: Did that extra bureaucracy come out of the Mike Harris years, or is there just an increasing concern with liability?

Nicole: There is an increasing concern with liability. That’s not just a TDSB thing. Some of it is also the amalgamation of Toronto and its suburbs, which created a much bigger Board and therefore more red tape. And I think it’s a product of the times. It’s certainly not just education.

Brian: In the beginning, we never really thought about litigation. We did what was necessary to keep them safe, but we didn’t feel it was our job to entirely remove danger. That’s why we did downhill skiing and things like that, because the element of danger is important for a growing person. They have to learn about mortality and gravity.

Michael: Do you still do the big end-of-the-year trips?

Nicole: Not the way you did them. But we do. We leave Monday for Washington, D.C. We used to do two week-long trips, one every year, and we’d take every kid in the school. But the parents started to say that it was a lot of money. So we run on a two-year rotation. The kids are here for two years. That’s another advantage of a small school. There are things in the curriculum that you really only need to cover once, and it doesn’t matter if you cover them in grade 7 or grade 8, as long as you’ve done them. We save a lot of time that way. But we still ski. We rock-climb now. We bike hike every year. In year one, we’re almost never here.

Ian: And we used to be out on Thursday afternoons.

Brian: The kids would organize field trips connected to what they were interested in.

Michael: From the kids’ perspective, we were deeply involved in the organizing. How true that is, I don’t know, but it certainly felt that way.

Ian: They had to fill in forms, too, saying why they were going, what they wanted to find out.

Nicole: Once the Board amalgamated, we had to cut that program.

Brian: In a small school you can be flexible and you can do interesting and unusual things; it’s the same way with a small board. The Toronto Board, when it was smaller, was a very innovative board with a lot of flexibility. People came from all over the world to see Toronto Board schools, because they were so good. That ended with amalgamation in 1998.

Ariel: Ontario was in the forefront of education worldwide at that time.

Nicole: We were ranked top in the world for language education. We were ranked really high for innovation and for child-centred learning. The problem when you get too big is that, inevitably, you need rules. I honestly don’t know how long Toronto alternative schools can be maintained.

Ariel: That’s interesting.

Nicole: Am I the only one who’s said this, of all the teachers you’ve talked to?

Ariel: You’re the only one who’s said it in that way.

Michael: So bluntly.

Ariel: Are you saying that alternative education itself is at risk?

Nicole: I don’t think that in the current climate being different is particularly valued.

Eric: It isn’t. We used to go to workshops that the Board offered when it was just the Toronto Board. They’d have some awesome people come. You would get some really valuable information. I’ve been teaching twenty-odd years. I’ve done this job well. Last night I went to the funeral of a the guy who was my back in math. If I ran into a problem, I went to him. He gave me so much confidence. Recently at a teachers’ math workshop I put on some music in the background, did this mystical thing, and just pulled teachers in. The person in charge of the workshop shut me down. A couple of people came up afterwards and said, “I think what you’re doing might work for me.” And we chatted, we exchanged information. But really, the Board has a plan. There is no flexibility. It’s just too big.

Nicole: It’s not that they don’t value quality education. It’s that they have no idea what’s going on in the schools, because there are too many of them.

Brian: Uniformity is much easier to administer.

Nicole: Uniformity is also more equitable. There is a big equity issue with alternative schools. It’s very awkward, because there’s this idea that we should be meeting every child’s needs, and yet there’s the idea that every child should get exactly the same thing. Those two ideas are hard to reconcile. If you’re meeting every kid’s needs, they’re going to need different things. We have no problem admitting that we are a niche market. We’re not going to meet the needs of every child in the Board. But at the same time, there’s this feeling that every kid should have access to the exact same opportunities. So if it’s perceived that the kids in alternative schools have better opportunities, then that’s a problem.

Eric: I’m going to speak to you as a parent and a teacher at an alternative school. There was an alternative school called Cherrywood. It was housed in Humewood, and it had started twenty years before my kids got there, it was well-established. However, when we were there, there were rumblings, because both schools had an open-door policy. Parents were able to come in. The parents who did show up happened to be the parents of the kids in the alternative program. They were in the classrooms. They were there helping. When they fundraised, they got more money. They made the ratios better. In the regular stream classrooms, you’ve got some vocal parents saying, “Hey, there’s disparity.” And one of those parents got the ear of the Board. They petitioned to close Cherrywood. It was one meeting, and it caught everybody off-guard. The trustees said, “Yes, it’s inequitable. We’re gonna shut it down.” Within two weeks, there was a firestorm that you just couldn’t put out. But they’d already passed it, so the only way to do anything was to get involved politically. The community went ballistic. We voted out most of the trustees, but it wasn’t enough, because right after that, [anti-education Ontario Premier Mike] Harris came in, and he made changes to the entire system. Yes, there is disparity in alternative schools, because those people are more committed. They are willing to come in. They are willing to do more.

Nicole: You tend to see more parent involvement because parents seek us out. We’re not the standard route. By definition, they’re committed to being here. From the outside, it looks like they care more.

Eric: Being a black parent at Cherrywood at that time, I was assumed to be a Humewood parent because Humewood had a higher percentage of black students. The media was all over the place, and they’d stick a mic in front of my face and say, “So, what do you think about this?” I was the wrong person to ask. [All laugh] They didn’t get the answers that they wanted, but it’s amazing what you can do with a clip. Three days later, people are going, “Eric, you’re on TV.” And man, I lost it. I was down there at the TV station. I made them redo the interview without racializing the issue and making it look like there were inequities between the two schools.

Nicole: When I said I don’t know how long alternative education can be maintained, it’s that I don’t know how long the funding will be in place. We cost more than a regular classroom because we have more teachers per student. And the more they talk about standardized testing, the less likely it is that alternative schools can survive. Inevitably we’d have to teach to the tests. As long as they don’t make it worse, we’re okay. But if it gets harder, I don’t know how possible it is for teachers to manage the workload. Every year there are more curriculum expectations, more reporting expectations, more forms to do. Eventually there has to be a breaking point.

Ariel: It sounds like there’s something wrong with the Board’s definition of equity. I wonder how it got that way. That level of bureaucracy certainly sounds inequitable for teachers.

Nicole: On one level, I agree that alternative education is not equitable. There is a certain quality to alternative school education, regardless of what alternative school we are in, that cannot be duplicated in the regular school setting, particularly at the senior school level. At the elementary level, there are schools that, even though they’re not alternative, come very close. It comes down to the sense of community, the way that teachers know the kids, the way the teachers know each other, the way the teachers interact with the parents. But I think particularly at the senior school and high school level, it’s hard to achieve that, because in mainstream schools there are just too many children. If you put 700 or 800 thirteen-year-olds in a building, it’s hard to achieve a sense of closeness and community. And it’s hard to bring out the best in those kids when it’s so hard to get to know them. I do think that there’s an equity issue there. There is a value to small schools where everyone knows each other that every kid should be a part of. At alternative schools, so much of the planning is about making the kids enthusiastic about school. That’s not necessarily part of the planning in a regular school, and I’ve been in very good regular schools.

Ian: The big difference is that we made the kids feel responsible. We made them feel that they had an important part to play in whatever it was that was happening. They had some role to play, not just to sit there and take it in.

Brian: It has a lot to do how much latitude the teachers are given. A principal who will come into a school and say, “Okay, you guys are professionals. I’m just expecting you do what you’re supposed to do, and I’d like to come around and see what’s going on.” As a teacher, you can work with that. But Ian and I had a principal who used to call staff meetings once a week, and we would all sit there, and they would start off with gum-chewing. Gum-chewing usually took an hour. [all laugh] Then there was lateness. Lateness took forever.

Ariel: Ironically enough. Eric, you said that there’s an open-door policy for parents. How does that play out? What role do parents play at Horizon?

Eric: One year there was a parent who came in talked about fractals. That guy changed my math class. Parents who bring in ideas to your classroom can have a big impact.

Nicole: We don’t mandate parent involvement except for fundraising. Every parent helps with the fundraising, because we are dependent on that money. The Board budget is determined by numbers, and we don’t have a lot of numbers, so we don’t get a lot of money. We invite parents to contribute whenever they feel they can. Anytime we need help, we put out an email. This year, in Town, we needed millworkers who would demonstrate.

Ariel: What is Town?

Nicole: Town is a huge simulation where the kids role-play three years of grown-up life. They have a job, they get married, they have children. We create a small town from scratch. Actually, we just tore our 3D model of the town apart, which is kind of a shame. I should’ve left that ’til you got here. It’s huge, and it lasts three months. We start working on it in November, but we officially go into role in January, and we’re in role until March Break. So for a half a day, every day, we turn the entire school into a northern town. We create the town from scratch. Every kid has a job. That’s the first thing they have to do. They write a résumé. They apply for their job. And then, in the first year, which lasts two weeks, we give them two weeks of prep time to set up their business and figure out how a business works. They do job-shadowing. All the parents are sent a form that they can fill in with their skills, and they share it with all their friends. So we have people a database the kids can refer to as a research-reference tool.

After they prep their business, they shop. They need clothes, they buy cars, they buy a house. By year two, they’ve established some kind of relationship. So they either are living with or married to someone in the class, or they’ve created a spouse of some kind. We introduce children into the mix.

In years two and three, we start involving Town problems. Every year, I try to pick something that’s in the news so that it’s relevant. It’s got some relevance to Toronto, so that they can start to develop a political sense. This year we wanted to talk about the idea of economic growth versus quality of life, and we were using the Island airport as the basis for a case study. But we needed to make them hungry. The town is a one-industry town, and we needed the mill have an issue, because twenty-five percent of your market is driven by this one business. I needed mill employees to have a strike, but I didn’t have enough kids. So I put out an email. I got ten parents who became millworkers and came in for three or four afternoons and had demonstrations. They had a barrel with fake flames and a megaphone. They went around passing out pamphlets to the kids. They totally got into it.

They can also come in to the school anytime they want. They do not need to warn us that they’re coming in to visit. They can pop in anytime. We also work really hard at making sure that they know what’s going on. We blog constantly. We’re on Twitter. We upload assignments to the website. The kids do homework plans or time management sheets on Google Docs, which their parents are linked to. We report almost weekly on how they’re doing. Even if they’re not actively in the school, we make sure that they’re involved in what’s happening, and that they feel they’re an integral part of the process. They very rarely just come in to watch, but a lot of them are involved in one way or another.

Brian: One of the ways that I’m still involved in the school is I do a rock ‘n’ roll band with the kids, and one of the parents—I think it was her sister who knew Phil X who played lead for Bon Jovi. We happened to be doing a Bon Jovi song, “Living on a Prayer.” She managed to get Phil X to come in and work with the kids.

Nicole: Yesterday, the house band was in the studio recording, which was arranged through one of the parents. Ian still comes in every year.

Ian: I judge.

Nicole: He’s the Riel judge. He’s so good, the kids are totally…

Eric: They’re petrified.

Ariel: Tell me about Riel—I take it this is an immersive activity based on Louis Riel’s life.

Ian: We try Riel, and sometimes he gets condemned, and sometimes, occasionally, he gets off.

Nicole: We re-write history. The kids are bound by historical fact, up to the moment where Riel is stopped and charged with high treason. But after that, they’ve got the option of developing their own case, for or against, so we have four lawyers on the prosecution side and four lawyers on the defense.

Ian: And the jury is obviously packed the wrong way, simply by the fact that the good guys were in charge.

Nicole: We have a jury and witnesses. We start work on it in March, and we go to trial in May. The kid lawyers are paired with real lawyers whom they work with to develop their case. We run an 1885 courtroom. The kids get lawyer robes, which we get through a parent. A number of our units have been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, because they’re very unusual for senior schools.

Eric: I got that award for Town.

Nicole: For Riel we always place in the top five, but because we’re against kids who are five years older, it’s very hard to get the same level of depth.

Ian: I’m not sure if it’s still that way, but as a school we used to promote a spirit of inquiry.

Nicole: Oh, I think that’s still true.
Ian: I mean, accept nothing at face value. Always have a slight skepticism. I think that is fairly important.

Nicole: I taught regular school, and so did Eric. I did a lot of the same stuff in my regular classroom as I do here, frankly, and I certainly had the same philosophy about what the kids should get out of my class. But in a regular school, I got a lot of, “Do you have to have your kids in the hall again?” or, “My kids are complaining that your kids are doing another art activity.” Whereas, here, I can come up with new and wonderful things. One year, I thought we should build an entire village so that all the kindergarten classes in the neighbourhood could come trick-or-treating.

We had fifteen kid-sized houses which the kids built and decorated, and then they went out and got donations of candy from stores. Our students were hiding in their houses. We had a road with signs, and the kindergarten kids came and knocked at the door and said, “Trick or treat” and were given candy. In a regular school, it is so rare for those ideas to be accepted by everyone, whereas in this kind of setting, it happens all the time.

Eric: I take the kids outside as often as I can; in a regular school, people would get on my case about it. At some point, somebody would invariably say, “You’re making me look bad.”

Nicole: It’s also the fact that the kids love school. They want to be here.

Eric: We go out of our way to make kids feel comfortable, to bond with them, and we meet kids many years later who have maintained the friendships they started here. That’s pretty powerful.

Nicole: I think that’s why you have so many reunions of alternative schools. It’s because there is kind of a closeness that’s hard to match. We have kids who come back years later who remember everything they did here.

Horizon Alternative Senior School

Interviewed on June 1, 2016