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Toronto’s West End Alternative School began over twenty years ago as a place where high school students could learn at their own pace. It offered a wide variety of courses from which students could choose in order to design their own program of study and direct their own learning. In recent years, West End has evolved into a school serving at-risk students in grades 10-12, offering a nutrition program, a full-time youth counselor, themed package courses, and tenacious support from a dedicated teaching staff. Students play an active role in making decisions that shape their school experience, and staff create new programming by consensus. Ariel Fielding sat down for a congenial chat with teachers Anne-Marie Longpré, Cassandra Kirchmeir-Gitt, Joseph Galiwango, and Lee Sheppard, after eating far too much dessert at the school’s annual Festive Feast holiday celebration and potluck.

Ariel: Tell me about the history of West End.

West End Alternative School Cassandra Kirchmeir-GittCassandra: West End was started for self-directed students. In the morning, we taught compulsory credits that were delivered at the student’s own pace. In the afternoons, students had three weeks to earn a third of a credit, and teachers had a lot of creative control. As teachers, we had to promote our credits. We’d create a name, create a theme, connect it to the curriculum, and get [the students] to choose which one they wanted. Back then there were a lot more electives available to students, so that meant that students had more choice of how to complete their diploma. If students wanted to take one-third of a credit of Bicycle Tripping, and one-third of a credit of Dyeing Fabrics With Plants, they could do that. They could accumulate credits in a series of thirds. Because it was self-paced, students could progress more quickly in credits that they were better at, and then get more support for credits they needed more help with. Some students would take a year to do two-thirds of a credit, and other students would complete all their thirds in half a year. In Math, for example, which I was teaching at that time, some students would go through four math credits in a year. That was fine with the Ministry of Education, and it worked for a lot of students, because they could fast-track if they wanted. The afternoons were workshop-oriented, and that format worked really well.

Ariel: Speaking of workshop-based courses, I found out about West End from teachers Craig Morrison and Lauren Hortie at Oasis Skateboard Factory, who told me to ask about your themed package programs.

Lee Sheppard, West Side AlternativeLee: Last year we went through a proposal process and we looked at approximately sixteen different options for package programs, and we came up with the three that we’re currently offering. They are Sweatshop, which is a fashion business program; The West-Enders, which is a book publishing program where students write short pieces, illustrate each other’s work, and produce a book as a class; and the Reel Lit package, which is a film studies and film production package—we did a collaboration with the Skateboard Factory, and we’re making music videos right now for local artists.

Anne-Marie Longpré, West End Alternative SchoolAnne-Marie: I think we would agree that we were inspired by Craig and Lauren at the Skateboard Factory. We saw that they took these disengaged kids and made things real for them. We’re dealing with at-risk youth who don’t like school, if we’re going to be frank, and for a lot of totally valid reasons. We saw how much success Craig [Morrison] was having—this was before Lauren [Hortie] was there full-time—you’re doing great, Lauren! She’s going to read this, right? Because the success that Craig was having with these kids, we saw that it was real. By real, I mean that it had a life beyond the classroom. It wasn’t just a teacher who saw their work and gave it a grade. Lee and I had a lot of conversations about how to create authentic projects that live beyond the classroom. My background is in English, but I have a passion for—I’m not going to say that word—sewing. [laughs] I’m also a family studies teacher, and I’m a little bit out of my element teaching the business credits, but I have a business background, I’ve been the manager of several vintage clothing stores. I wanted to see the kids get real entrepreneurship experience, because I’ve been very inspired by all the educational research that’s been coming out in the past three years, especially from Ryerson, saying how entrepreneurship is the wave of the future. In Sweatshop, a real venture is being applied to a fashion credit: the students are learning to sew and produce and sell. Just recently we spent a few weeks at a pop-up shop at Queen and Dovercourt called Vendor Queens, and I think it was very eye-opening for the kids to see that real people were excited to see what they had made, and they got some money, and it all became very real. It was super gratifying as a teacher to be able to see the students validated, not just as students, but as humans and artists producing work and feeling like real businesspeople. We had an accounting meeting on Monday, and we had to figure out who made what, and how to balance labour costs; it wasn’t theory, it was real.

Lee: Craig was my mentor, when I was in teachers’ college I did my internship with him, and he and I had a sort of collaborative relationship after that, doing projects together, and so the Skateboard Factory is one of the main inspirations for wanting to do packages. The other inspiration was that as a high school student I did the Bronte Creek project in Halton, which is a four-credit outdoor education package where students learn to teach an environmental education program for grades four and five. When I was sixteen I did that, and it was life-changing. It was one of those experiences. That and the Skateboard Factory were in my mind when I was pushing to do packages.

Ariel: And what about the Reel Lit package?

Anne-Marie: Reel Lit was an idea that I’d been toying with for some time. I come from a Women’s Studies background, and so I was really interested in doing a university-style film studies program. It has ended up being much more fuelled by Lee, because Lee has a film background—I just have a film interest. I’m teaching the English portion of it, but Lee’s been doing amazing things with the production. We were seeing so many of our kids with an interest in film—I think of someone like Clayton—

Lee: Mmm-hmm

Anne-Marie: He lives for T.V. and film. He loves it, he thinks about it, he analyzes it, and so we wanted to create a space where that kind of creativity could live.

Lee: We’ve had difficulty this year, because of scheduling. Anne-Marie and I started by collaborating really heavily on projects, but found it wasn’t particularly relevant, because there were a number of students taking just the English course with her, and not all four of the credits, so the projects she did with the English class had to be complete in and of themselves, which essentially separated them from the other three credits. It’s a growing pain of the course.

Anne-Marie: We’re staying together thematically, with documentaries and memoirs—“growing pains” is a perfect way to put it. Once we have something to show, as opposed to this pilot project we’re trying, then we’ll be able to have kids in the full program exclusively. What we’re doing now would be like teacher Craig Morrison trying to do one credit with one kid while he’s doing four credits with the rest of the students at the Skateboard Factory. It would just be bonkers.

Lee: One of the advantages of the package programs is this longer period of time with students; it allows you to have a deeper engagement. I have a smaller group of students that I monitor, and so I can be responsive to them more quickly. That for me as an educator has been so valuable.

Ariel: Do all of the kids at the school take part in these programs?

Lee: No, and this is one of the things we’re discussing for next year, is how we’re going to balance packages and what we’re calling in our staff meetings
“one-offs.” We really want to add to the packages and continue offering packages, but we also recognize that the students we’re currently attracting need one-offs. Their credit counseling summaries have gaps that we still feel the need to help them fill.

Anne-Marie: We need to serve everyone who’s coming through our door. It’s a transition. We hope that we’re going to transition to a primarily package-based school, but rebranding is a process.

Cassandra: We had already been talking about a variety of different packages, and when the staffing committee met it was to make those difficult decisions. We ended up choosing three. We knew we couldn’t do everything. There’s consensus around this table to continue with packages, and our challenge is the logistics. Philosophically we are moving towards ways to connect with the community, and to make school real.

Ariel: Do you find that the kids who come here after they’ve been alienated by the mainstream system, if they’re just doing the one-off courses, are they as deeply engaged as the kids who are enrolled in the package programs?

Joseph Galiwango, West End Alternative School Joseph GaliwangoJoseph: I think it depends on the student and the circumstances that the student comes with. I don’t teach any packages, but since it’s such a small school we all teach the same students. We have some students who are willing to let us support them, some students are hot and cold, and some students are a little bit farther away from being supported—they’re harder to deal with.

Cassandra: We just don’t have enough data yet. I think at the end of this year we’ll have some data that we’ll go on, and then every year we’ll accumulate more.

Anne-Marie: Ariel, you just witnessed a lovely tradition we have, our Festive Feast. I think that speaks a lot to what I want to say, which is, we’re so much more than packages. So do the packages help kids engage? Absolutely. But do so many other things help kids engage? Absolutely. Our nutrition plan allows us to serve hot lunch every day of the week; the teachers eat with the kids a meal that we’ve all collaboratively made. That’s a big part of our community. Our interactions with kids, our focus on community, our focus on connection, our amazing child and youth counselor Geraldine, I think are all part of what are engaging kids when they walk through this door.

Ariel: So package programs are just one feature among many.

Anne-Marie: Exactly, yeah, so that’s an academic engagement that we’re trying to get, getting the kids more invested in the actual credits, but we are also trying to get them invested in school life, and invested in being here, and being West Enders.

Ariel: And do you find that there’s a high level of—I don’t like to use the word “success”, but, say, credit accumulation?

Anne-Marie: I’ve only been at West End for two years now, but I’ve taught at Inglenook and City School as well, and we just have a very different clientele, a much more at-risk clientele, and so it’s been a learning process for me, and getting mentorship from everyone here, that we define success in so many ways beyond credit accumulation. I can think of students who are coming almost every day, doing almost no work, but the fact that they’re walking through the door is 100% turnaround from the school they were at last year. It depends on where they’re starting from. Forward motion is happening; it’s just that that forward motion isn’t necessarily credit accumulation for all of them.

Ariel: I’m reminded of what A.S. Neill said about mainstream education, which is that the idea behind it is really to inculcate fear. The impression that I get of all the alternative high schools that I’ve been to so far is that they give kids a break from that fear, and give them a chance to develop a sense of themselves.

Anne-Marie: I would hope so. Granted, I do have to put a little caveat there, I did spend three years at a giant mainstream school, and amazing things are happening in mainstream as well; we just have the luxury of being this small family that can forge the kinds of connections that at-risk kids need. They need personal connections more than kids who have stable home lives, so I don’t even think there’s a need to vilify mainstream schools.

Cassandra: I grew up in a small town, one high school, one size fits all. The reason I love West End and all the other alternatives is because students can find that right fit. I think I have a lot of things in common with our students, but I just had to cope with mainstream because that was my only choice. I’m glad they have other choices.

Ariel: You’ve talked about the programs that you have here and your means of building community. I wonder if you could each talk about your own personal approach to education, your philosophy, and the challenges of making that work in the classroom.

Cassandra: My biggest thing is, I want students to be autonomous and make their own decisions about how they’re going to engage with curriculum. And so ideally I want them to say, “Ok, I know I have to demonstrate this kind of knowledge, and here’s how I want to do it.” We try to give kids choices, and for years I’ve said, “If you want to do it orally, we’ll do it orally, not a problem,” or whatever way they want to demonstrate, but so many of them, by the time they come here, say, “I’ll just write an essay,” or, “Can’t you give me a test?” So my ideal would be that they know enough about themselves and their strengths to know how to present what they know. But the first part would be getting them engaged enough to care about the curriculum, and that has to happen through them trusting us that we’re not just making them do this “for their own good,” but that it’s now their autonomous choice to do well at something that interests them.

Lee: Honestly, when I think of alternative schools, the phrase that comes to mind for me is a Dead Kennedys phrase, “school damage”, at the beginning of the song Straight A’s. I do think there are kids who come here who are what I would describe as “school-damaged.” That said, I thrived in a mainstream high school as a student, and it’s been a real challenge for me to break out of that way of thinking. I have to ask myself questions about why I have certain expectations. That self-reflective part is really important for me as an educator. I also have moved intuitively toward project-based work because at this school so many students do have impediments to attendance. Much of the credit accumulation difficulty that they have is related to attendance. So my comfort has been doing projects with them. Fewer traditional lessons and more, “Well, you’re in process. How can I help you?” and floating around and noticing what they’re doing. Now my background is visual art—I’m trained as a visual arts teacher and English teacher. I also am emotionally engaged with the students, usually in a positive way, in that I am compassionate and try to be compassionate. But I get frustrated with them as well, and I think that that’s one of the difficulties with my approach to pedagogy. It’s not something I developed intellectually, it’s something I intuitively and emotionally developed, and I feel slighted sometimes when they don’t follow through and they don’t meet their commitments. That’s been difficult as an educator, but I think the alternative schools have been a good place for the development of this type of pedagogy. I would say “make stuff” is my pedagogy, but I do genuinely have an emotional attachment to their success. I think that’s part of what motivates me, but it can muddle things a bit too.

Cassandra: It can be emotionally draining, but it can be inspiring as well.

Lee: When we did the Skateboard Factory video—one of the reasons I didn’t pursue film after I finished my degree in film was because I find the stress of organizing film shoots unmanageable. And I ended up in a situation where I was organizing a film shoot with the most unreliable people I know. I do genuinely care for these kids, and I wanted to offer them this opportunity, and Craig [Morrison] is a mentor, so I really felt committed to making something positive with Craig. [But] there were a lot of emotional difficulties for me in that process. It’s emotionally taxing to work with these students.

Lee: And in the packages, we’re with them all day.

Anne-Marie: All the time.

Eleonora: There’s no break for the teachers.

Ariel: Sort of like attachment parenting. [teachers laugh]

Joseph: I believe there’s a lot of possibilities for these students to succeed, and a lot of the work that we do to make that happen is a little bit outside of the box. The students have not succeeded in mainstream schools for whatever reason, so they’re in school with us. I believe that there are a lot of ways that we can keep the spark ignited, whether it’s to make a package, to change the assignment, or whatever needs to be done. A lot of their disadvantages are not their fault at all. A lot of times they drive us crazy, but it’s like, “Ok, let’s figure something out,” because they’re only 16, 17, 18, and we can still move forward. At another school they would probably be in some resource room or be very close to suspended. But in our school, the vibe is and the belief is, “Let’s see what we can do to make things work.” And oftentimes that’s a conversation with only two people anyway. It’s not like there’s a bunch of other students that need your attention.

Lee: Sure

Joseph: Some of the setbacks become really really devastating for a day or two, and then we’re moving forward. We only have a handful of students, and we have time, and we have resources. We realize that there can be success with these students before they realize it.

Anne-Marie: I’ve been thinking a lot about my pedagogical philosophy lately, wondering how I’ve gotten myself into this Sweatshop nonsense [laughs]. But I would call my philosophy a pedagogy of love, like overwhelming, beat them over the head with it love. I call my kids “sweetheart,” and “darling,” and “baby,” because our kids are starved for love. If you were to sit down and interview ten kids tomorrow, you would hear, “I hated school,” “My teachers hated me,” “I hate math,” “I hate reading,” hate hate hate hate hate hate hate. “Why’d you get kicked out of Oakwood?” “My principal hated me.” You would hear the word “hate” so much, and we’re getting them at the end of a very long line of, as Lee said, “school damage.” A very long line of being told that they are not good, that they are not welcome, that they are not liked, and so I’m trying to envelop them with love. With some kids it takes a while. I know from my own experience as a student, that the teachers I felt cared about me and whom I really liked, I worked harder for. You know, of course kids should just be intrinsically motivated, and should work just because they know it’s for their own good, but that’s just not the way things go, and so I work very hard to forge strong personal relationships with my students, so that they feel personally invested in the program, in me. If they only reason that they did that project was so as not to let me down, oh well, they did it. I want to take that love and push it into them, so that they love what they are doing, that they love what they are learning, that they aren’t just getting through, that they love it. And maybe, just maybe, final step, love themselves, and be so proud of themselves that they were able to accomplish something. So for me it all just comes down to this bottom line of lo-o-o-ove, L-O-V-E, love. Love, love!

Lee: I was at an alternative schools conference last year. I had gone to a session led by people from the Peel Alternative Schools. They were talking about attachment, like the parenting philosophy, and they were talking about how at their alternative schools, they quite intentionally try to form attachments between students and teachers, for the sort of reasons Anne-Marie is talking about. It really sparked something in me, because I had been on parental leave the previous year, and when I came back, I felt very alienated from the students. The things that I am normally able to tolerate, I couldn’t. I was really struggling. And then one day two students whom I had taught before I went on parental leave, those two students weren’t there, and I felt this terrible sinking feeling. It was an important moment for me, because I realized I need to know the students. These are not normal students who are enthusiastic about education. If we’re not interested in that same thing, then the question becomes, “What are we doing in this room together?” So that moment where those kids that I knew didn’t show up, and then hearing about attachment, I realized what I was missing was attachment to the new students. And it gradually got easier as I got to know them. I talked about this at the session afterwards, saying how helpful it was to me to hear them talk about this, and a woman approached me when we were getting lunch, and she just said, “Love.” And I was like, “What?” And she’s like, “Yeah, it’s love.” I think as teachers we do shy away from the word. It’s courageous of Anne-Marie to use the word “love,” because when I’m talking about emotional engagement with them, that’s really what I’m talking about. I put a lot of love into my work with them, and when I don’t get it back, it—

Anne-Marie: hurts!

Lee: I feel slighted, right? They’re not doing it because of me, they’re doing it because they need the job that they’re working until after midnight to help support their family. It’s really important to keep that kind of stuff in mind. Today I was having difficulty with a student for that exact reason. He’s stopped attending regularly because he has a job. He’s got a job because his mum doesn’t have as many hours at work, and it’s so complicated, but it hurts my feelings initially. I do think the student we’re talking about now is capable of finding that balance, and he also needs to know that I expect him to try.

Ariel: When there’s a kid in that kind of situation, where life circumstances are making it difficult to come to school, how do you work with that student to overcome that challenge?

Cassandra: Case by case, day by day.

Joseph: Day by day, student by student. We reach out to the students in the mornings, whether by phoning them or emailing them. That works in some cases. For a lot of the students I know the background issues, whether it’s anxiety or different mental health issues. One time we were working on a project that involved telling some personal challenges that we’d overcome. One student couldn’t handle it, and she started shaking. I said, “Ok, ok, that’s fine,” and then I went and got Anne-Marie, [Anne-Marie laughs] because her love philosophy is on a higher level than mine. [Lee laughs]

Anne-Marie: Anne-Marie can hug.

Joseph: That’s right, and that’s what happened—the rest of us went out of the room, and Anne-Marie came in.

Anne-Marie: He called me in for hug patrol. [laughs]

Joseph: That saved that situation. That was one situation, and that student is hot and cold, she’s not with us this week. There’s another student of mine in my art class who is often absent because of anxiety. So one of her friends and I work together. I call him a coach—he likes to be called that. His friend had missed my class, and he came and told me that she was in the building. I said, “No, she’s not.” “Yeah, she is, I wanted to come and tell you.” She was actually there, and I went and said, “Hey, welcome back.” So for me, it’s just reading the cues, of what will work, what will make these students feel good about themselves for a moment, and then see how much we can build that.

Anne-Marie: I don’t think any of us could tell you how we do—we just do, right? It really truly is person by person—

Lee: And we as teachers can jump in for one another, according to our strengths. It’s quite amazing when it functions, and there are moments when it’s like, “I am so glad Anne-Marie and I teach ReelLit together, ” because she is so much better at dealing with particular challenges than I am.

Anne-Marie: And ditto vice versa.

Lee: We each have a network of support. It’s so difficult to know what will reach these students that it does help that we have a team. I also think it’s persistence. We’ve been talking about mottos lately—you can see some of the evidence of it up on our blackboard. “Find your direction” is the one that we’re using. “Spinning your wheels” I proposed tongue-in-cheek, it’s the negative expression of what I think is actually one of our strengths, which is that we stick with students. 100% of the students who come through our doors have been given up on. And we are persistent in believing in them sometimes I think past the point even that we think is sensible. We wonder why we are being persistent with a student when there is so little reward. But I do think that that is one of our strengths. Credit acquisition is not the only thing we do well. The other thing we do well is we persist with these students in caring for them, even if they aren’t helping our data.

Anne-Marie: If we wanted to make our numbers more impressive, we’d kick out half the kids we have. But that’s not what we’re here for, that’s not what we do. And do we suffer for it? Absolutely, we lost a teacher this year. You know, we’re down to seven teaching staff instead of eight, and that affects programming hugely.

Lee: We also suffer personally for it, I think.

Anne-Marie: Absolutely, yeah.

Lee: It is hard to feel effective as a teacher when students are—

Joseph: When there’s nobody in the classroom. We’re motivated by the success of our programs, so with smaller classrooms like mine, if I don’t make the phone calls, I could end up with one student, or maybe a classroom where no one’s shown up yet. And that’s a really bad feeling. So I make sure I connect with as many students as possible. We can lose students; because they’ve been given up on before, it’s very easy for them to just stop coming. In a larger school, a student drops out, school goes on, the teacher’s job is probably going to be secure, but in a school like this, everything is a lot more fragile. If we don’t work hard to support them, they won’t come, and then we can lose our jobs.

Anne-Marie: It’s funny, Lee always says that we’re frontierspeople.

Lee: I do, I feel like this is the frontier.

Ariel: You’re pioneering.

Lee: There is a consequence to that. Remaining alternative with a shifting mainstream is a challenge. And because mainstream educators are dedicated educators as well, they adopt some of the things that our pioneers like Craig [Morrison] are doing in these laboratories. It forces us to figure out who we are again.

Anne-Marie: A reinvention

Lee: It’s that constant revolution.

Anne-Marie: Alternative schools used to be ‘student success schools,’ but now mainstream schools are all on the student success train, they uphold curriculum leaders and departments just for student success. That’s amazing. That means more kids are being served better.

West End Alternative School

Interviewed on Dec. 18, 2013