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.

The Hall-Dennis Report & the Creation of the Alpha School

In 1965, anticipating the Canadian centennial in 1967 and stewing in the milieu of 1960s progressive thought, the province of Ontario set up a commission to consider new approaches to public education consistent with the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The two commission co-chairs were E.M. Hall, a well-respected judge and reformer, and L.A. Dennis, a small-town high school principal. The Hall-Dennis Commission set out to consult with an array of experts (including one of my personal “gurus”, media philosopher Marshall McLuhan) and survey the world’s most innovative educational approaches.

After visiting the Summerhill School in England, the commission decided that the school’s democratic-free school approach was the most consistent with the human rights Declaration and should be the model for all public schools in Ontario going forward. The commission’s 1968 report, Living and Learning, recommended that the province move towards free school education in all Ontario’s public schools to best develop the unique talents of all its future citizens.

The recommendation was accepted by the provincial government which set a path to implementation that involved retraining teachers and allowing each school to make their own transition to the free school model. Some public schools in Ontario successfully made the transition but most did not, and growing teacher dissatisfaction with a poorly implemented retraining program (culminating in a lengthy teacher’s strike) led to the abandonment of the entire effort and the return of public schools in the province to the conventional teacher-directed education model.

An exception was the Alpha Elementary School, opened in 1972, which quietly continued with its free school philosophy despite the sea change by the provincial education bureaucracy. With its dedicated teachers and intense parental support it was able to continue and thrive under the Summerhill democratic-free school model. According to O’Rourke, it was the strong commitment of the school to its democratic governance model that has allowed it to continue and buck the larger trend of standardization of public education in the most recent decades…

Its core principles, over the years, prioritize the children and lead the teachers and parents back to a highly responsible form of community schooling, based on participatory democracy… One of the most vital parts of “The ALPHA Experience” is under governance: “School to be governed by a staff-community council.” That’s all it says, but this single simple sentence made a huge difference to ALPHA’s survival. The School Board has always resisted community-controlled schooling, which was an important movement in Toronto in the sixties/seventies. The Board doesn’t officially recognize local school self-governance, but whenever there is an attempt to impose a systemic norm on ALPHA, it faces a well-organized, articulate, thoughtful, argumentative community of parents.

We are talking about a small group of committed and determined people (the most effective cadre for change as anthropologist Margaret Mead famously pointed out) saying no to top-down control and standardized education, and saying yes to the democratic process within an egalitarian learning community. Most other progressive alternative schools spawned by the Hall-Dennis report fell by the wayside writes O’Rourke because they did not focus on their governance…

Many of the other long-standing alternatives began in the seventies as free schools… They stuck with a typical form of PTA, with an elected executive. Without the power of community consensus behind them, the school’s arguments usually don’t have a chance with the Board. ALPHA’s community council (referred to as “Parent Meeting”) is not an elected representation but everybody who chooses to attend meetings. Consensus takes time, and though it’s simple, it’s difficult for European-based cultures to understand. ALPHA originally learned from community members who were Quakers, and experienced in peace movements. It is a process we keep having to re-teach ourselves. With three new teachers next year as well as a parent community that changes about 15% each year, we are in such a period. Consensus is the traditional governance process of the Anishnaabe and the Haudenosaunee, the Indigenous people of this region. I hope that ALPHA will look to all these sources for its democratic renewal.

Starting & Continuing Alpha II

The Alpha elementary school has weathered the storm of educational standardization and continues to be be a small but profound educational alternative for children in Toronto. Parents who put their kids in the Alpha school (and some of those parent themselves like Carol Nash attended and benefited from the Canadian free-schools of the 1970s) formed the core of the group in 2006 that successfully set up a public secondary school (grades 7 to 12) on the same democratic-free school model, called Alpha II, which today has 85 students.

Nash was motivated to be part of the group of nine parents starting the Alpha II school because of her own experience going to public democratic-free schools in Toronto (spawned by Hall-Dennis) between 1969 and 1976. She contrasted her own positive experience in school with that of her younger siblings who attended more conventional state-standardized schools. Toward the end of eventually starting her own school, Nash became a teacher herself and continued her education to get a PhD in Philosophy of Education. Nash credits the fact that she and three others of the nine having PhDs helped convince the Toronto District School Board to even entertain their proposal for a school that would not be required to follow the standardized state curriculum that all other Toronto public schools (except their sister Alpha elementary school) were required to follow.

Interestingly, it was getting the Board’s Director of Alternative Education, who was familiar with and sympathetic to the Hall-Dennis report, to visit some prominent democratic-free schools in the U.S. – Sudbury Valley, Albany Free School and Manhattan Free School – that Nash believes got that key Director to support the new school and successfully convince her Board colleagues to approve it. Ironically these American schools visited are all private (or rather “independent” as they generally prefer to call themselves) because the school boards in American communities are so under the yoke of state standardization that they cannot possibly allow a public school that does not slavishly follow the state-directed curriculum. Though Alpha II is a mere nit in a province with over 2,000,000 kids in school, you would be hard pressed to find even one publicly funded democratic-free school in most U.S. states.

Following the Democratic-Free School Model

Alpha II continues to be open today as the rarest of schools, a public democratic-free school because, writes Nash…

Our school has been able to continue with the Board because we have had extremely supportive Superintendents, Principals and teachers who all want to provide the unschool model. Truly, everything just happened to fall into place at the right time with the right people. Luck has to be seen as the most important factor.

Though actually a democratic-free school, I note that Nash refers to her school in the quote above as an “unschool”. The logic I suspect is that since “schooling” implies something done to students by teachers, “unschooling” more accurately describes education that is learner rather than teacher-directed. Part of that self-direction, that unschooling, is flexibility of attendance to accommodate some students’ long commutes. Writes Nash…

The good thing is a young person is able to enroll in Alpha II as long as they live in Ontario and can get to Alpha II at least once every 15 days. That means we can serve people who live hundreds of miles away if they can drive into Toronto once a week or take public transit (there are many buses and trains that lead to Toronto). We are right across from the Dufferin subway station. Once you get into Toronto, you just have to transfer to the subway and it takes you right across from Alpha II.

Though Nash acknowledges that the Alpha schools have appealed to a mostly white constituency of families, she also calls out the importance of a public alternative school providing options to lower income families…

Like most alternative schools the majority of the 85 kids are white… Since my involvement with the elementary ALPHA began in 1985, there have been plenty of low-income folks. A huge reason for putting up with the rigors of the public system, was that the people most committed to democracy and equity in education do not tend to be able to afford private schools. There isn’t much of a wealthy liberal/progressive/radical class in Canada.

The Challenge Replicating the Public Unschool Model

Whereas a public democratic-free or unschool in the U.S. is essentially impossible in today’s frenzy of school standardization, Nash acknowledges that though possible in Ontario, still the bar is set too high for parents to launch other schools on the Alpha/Alpha II model. Writes Nash…

Other parents could duplicate Alpha II in Ontario. However, it takes a lot of time, dedicated people, a knowledge of the history of education in Ontario, families who understand the importance of having unschooling as an option, and those great public officials working for the individual boards who know and support this type of education. I have had families come to me who want to start a similar school somewhere in Ontario but the enormity of all the things they need to do, and the people they have to convince, has slowed them down and made them disheartened. Remember, even for people like us, who were very well trained in developing this type of school, it was hard for us to. There were many times when we thought all was lost.

Contrasting Basic Educational Policy Between the U.S. & Canada

That window of opportunity for starting profoundly alternative public schools like Alpha or Alpha II in Ontario is called out in the “Alternative Schools” page of the Toronto District School Board website (my highlights added)…

TDSB Alternative schools offer students and parents something different from mainstream schooling. Each alternative school, whether elementary or secondary is unique, with a distinct identity and approach to curriculum delivery. They usually feature a small student population, a commitment to innovative and experimental programs, and volunteer commitment from parents/guardians and other community members. While the schools offer Ministry approved courses, these courses are delivered in a learning environment that is flexible and meets the needs of individual students.

That last sentence offers a glimmer of opportunity, but within a context still focused on provincial/state standardized curriculum. In comparison my local Los Angeles Unified School District website has no section that I could find for alternative education or schools. Where I found alternative schools mentioned in a U.S. public school website, it is usually framed as a form of remediation for students who fail in conventional schools. From the Minneapolis public schools website page on “Alternative Schools” (again my highlights added)…

The Minneapolis Public School district is committed to providing a variety of opportunities to meet the needs of students. These programs provide a caring environment for students who need services beyond the traditional school day and during the summer to meet state and district standards. Students may be referred to alternative schools through one of the traditional Minneapolis public schools or students may choose to attend one of these schools.

Notice the explicit call out that “alternative” schools exist within the standards only, unlike the Ontario public school site indicating their alternative schools merely “offer” standard courses.

The Bottom Line Challenge

I Like Carol Nash’s underlying problem statement…

The fundamental value of both Canada and the US is that people should be free. Yet, our societies seem to think that freedom is something that only adults should have once they have been through the requisite years of compulsory confinement in schools. The problem is, once you have spent your childhood and early adulthood in confinement it is difficult to then know what freedom really is and to believe you actually have a right to it.

If our society is going to successfully continue its transition from hierarchies of control to an egalitarian circle of equals, progressive activists who believe in this human developmental transition will have to continue to fight, like these progressive education activists in Canada, to create the opportunity for societal institutions (particularly public schools) to fully embrace democratic principles.

5 replies on “A Democratic Alternative Legacy within Command & Control Public Education”

  1. Hey Coop! Hope you’re doing well.

    You [might] appreciate learning about some of the democratic learning environments operating inside what you’re calling the command-and-control education system of the US. They’re anomalous, but existent.

    NOVA School – http://novaknows.com/
    Jefferson County Open School – http://www.jeffcoopen.org/

    I know there are others out there with democratic operational and educational practices, but afraid or repressed from surfacing. I think the routine demonization of public schools is alienating to these model schools as well.

    How can we bring them out of the woods? Should we?

  2. Adam…Thanks for those links to the NOVA and Open Schools. I had no idea such public schools could exist in the U.S. standardization environment. I will check out how they were able to be.

  3. You need to add a WordPress like button!

    I’m lucky enough to homeschool but realize that it’s not a viable choice for everyone. The schools you speak of are definitely in the right direction for our children.

  4. Thanks for posting this great article, Coop.

    Windsor House is a public school in BC that is very similar to Alpha. It started in 1971, and has always had strong parent involvement.

    We have derived much comfort from the existence of Alpha over the decades.

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