Friday, March 28, 2014

ALPHA II Alternative Public Secondary School: Toronto, Canada

ALPHA II is a public school for 7th-12th graders, founded by parents of ALPHA graduates. Based on the freeschool/unschool model, students define the terms of their own learning by consulting with mentors and other adults, and building portfolios of meaningful work. As at ALPHA, there are no “top-down” requirements that mentors (teachers) must adhere to, so all learning is “bottom-up;” students work alone or in groups, however, whenever and wherever they choose. Anyone can elect to teach a course, but there will be no tests or grades assigned.

A comfy, open classroom
On the day I visited, most students were gathered in the largest room, a sprawling space in the basement of a larger school building. There was a stand full of guitars and ukuleles, a large ping-pong table, a number of couches and loungy chairs, a wall full of computers. Students were all around the space, playing video games, chatting, sketching, playing guitar, on their phones, playing cards and board games. Throughout the afternoon various classes were offered by mentors and volunteers (a film screening & discussion on mental illness, a class on camera angles in TV production, an art class), which were open to anyone. However, students had the option to work wherever they chose; no classes are compulsory. In addition to a few large multi-purpose rooms, there is a large art studio that students can access with supervision.

Art Studio
ALPHA II’S version of democratic school is based on freeschool/unschool pedagogy: students are actively encouraged to use the school building as just one of many possible options for where their learning can occur. While some students come almost every day, others spend the majority of their days learning in the local community: there are internships at local businesses, dual credit courses at the local colleges (offering both high school and college credit), and the school was chosen for its location: right downtown, close to museums, a large park, and other cultural centers. Parents are invited to the monthly community meetings after school—students and teachers chair.

Student art
I spoke extensively with one student who homeschooled for most of her childhood. After most of her home school friends had “given up” and joined a school, she grew lonely and began to search for other options. She’s been at ALPHA II for four years now. “First year was difficult,” she said. “We have issues with kids who come in from public school and resent learning— they’re detrimental to the space.” But, she tells me that she’s helped to institute a number of policies and committees to improve the school. “You have to reexamine what you think is productive. You say ‘I did nothing’ but really you played guitar, watched a documentary. People have a rigid sense of what school is…  and think that artistic [and social] endeavors aren’t worth anything.”

She has a long list of things that she plans to learn this year: learn to drive, play guitar, take voice lessons, work on her futuristic novel, and record interviews for a project on human empathy. She’s also continuing to accrue high school & college credits to work towards a GED. “You can’t live without learning something,” she continued. “Everything is learning. Here, we’re not discriminating against different types of learning, of intelligence. ALPHA is a learning community—students and teachers alike learn from each other.”

Monica, one of the mentors, echoed the sense of community and of democratic exchange between adult mentors and adolescent students. She worked in healing through the arts before she decided to teach. After completing her degree she began working in alternative schools, but, as she laughed, “not alternative enough.” Like me, she always felt uncomfortable evaluating students, and after seeing how deep need wasn’t taken into account by “schooling:” how unhappiness, stress, and mental health were issues exacerbated by the school system, she planned to leave teaching. Instead, she found ALPHA II.

Inclusive and safe-space messaging adorned the walls
She brings her prior interests into the school environment by working around social and emotional learning: conflict resolution and restorative practices, between individuals and the larger ALPHA II community. She coordinates with the “aboriginal education centre,” a part of the Toronto School Board staffed by educators who identify as aboriginals. The center works to preserve and promote equitable education in Canada, which is the primary goal of ALPHA II: to sustain an equitable, democratic learning environment where children are “free to live & free to learn.”

Thank you, ALPHA II!

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