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A Democratic Alternative Legacy within Command & Control Public Education

Alpha IIPublic education in the U.S. has featured state control of human development since Horace Mann and other educational “reformers” within the New England Protestant elite brought this novel approach of Prussian state-run universal compulsory schooling to America in the 1830s. Canadian educational policy followed a similar “melting pot” social engineering of immigrants path while accepting a greater role for Protestant and Catholic education in the mix with secular public schools. Today in both countries the bulk of public schools chart their course in sync with (or under the yoke of) continuing state efforts at high-stakes OSFA (one size fits all) standardization, though more so in the U.S. than in Canada.

I find this top-down “command and control” approach to public education at best boring and at worst very depressing, based on how I believe it diminishes the human imagination in particular and the human spirit in general. So as an advocate for what I call “many educational paths”, I celebrate and take heart from those rare educational alternatives that manage to find a way to exist within the leviathan of standardized public education. Sure there are a fair amount of private schools (for the more economically privileged among us) that follow these more human development supporting educational models, but I take my hat off to a community that can conceive and support a public school that challenges the hegemony of conventional standardization.

One such school that I recently read about in an online discussion on the AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) listserv is the Alpha II school in Toronto Ontario. It is the more recent incarnation of the original Alpha school, set up in 1972 in the heyday of the progressive education movement in Canada and the U.S. A movement that produced alternative public schools in many communities, including two – Earthworks and Community High School – begun a year earlier in my own hometown of Ann Arbor Michigan. FYI… Earthworks eventually merged with Community High and the latter is still going strong, but many of these unorthodox public schools have been forced to close due to the increasing standardization of education over the past twenty years.

The story of Alpha and Alpha II in particular I find fascinating, an insight into a chapter of education history and highlighting perhaps a somewhat more open-minded approach to public education in Canada. The story is courtesy of AERO members Carol Nash, a co-founder of the unorthodox school, and Deb O’Rourke, the school’s current volunteer coordinator.

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