Alternative Schools in Toronto in the 1960s & early 1970s
In the 1960s, there was increasing criticism of the education system in Ontario, as in many other parts of the world, and a corresponding search for changes or alternatives. In some instances, for example in the working-class area of Regent Park and Trefann Court in Toronto, parents organized to demand changes to the way their children were being taught, nor not taught, and to protest against the common practice of ‘streaming’ working-class children into dead-end, non-academic programs. These parents, organized in the Park School Community Council, produced a brief (the Park School brief) addressed to the Toronto Board of Education in the fall of 1971 titled “Downtown Kids Aren’t Dumb: They Need a Better Program.”
A different approach, more typically found in middle-class areas, was to push for ‘alternative schools’ or ‘free schools,’ usually within the education system, but sometimes completely outside it. One of the important sources of the alternative school movement was Summerhill, a free school founded by A.S. Neill in England in 1921. Neil’s book “Summerhill” was published in 1960, and was widely read by people critical of the way schools operated.
In Toronto, alternative schools started appearing in the latter part of the 1960s. Four of them are briefly profiled below. Other alternative schools created within the Toronto school systems in this time period included ALPHA, Laneway, and Inglenook.
Everdale was the first alternative free-school established for Toronto students in 1965-66. It was located on a former farm, situated about 80 kilometres from the city, but it catered to Toronto students and staff. It was established by people connected to This Magazine Is About Schools.
Everdale fostered intellectual inquiry (sometimes called learning beyond textbooks), creative play, and caring (rather than competitive) relationships among the students. There were no grades or exams, unless requested by students to meet university enrollment criteria.
Since Everdale operated entirely outside the formal education system, it was forced to charge tuition fees which were beyond the reach of most working-class families. As a result Everdale attracted mainly children of well-off professionals. It was also criticized for having a poorly-paid (if dedicated) workforce, while relying on volunteers for much of its functioning. Nonetheless, Everdale remained popular with students and has continued functioning in one form or another for decades.
SEED was founded in 1968 by the Toronto Board of Education as a summer program for high school students. The acronym SEED originally stood for “Summer of Experience Exploration and Discovery”. After the second summer program in 1969, SEED operated as an after-school program during the school year of 1969-1970. But the students wanted to keep the school going full-time throughout the year, and they requested that the Board establish it as a high school to obtain core funding for staff and space.
One of their high-profile supporters was Toronto author and communications expert Marshall McLuhan, who accompanied students when they appeared at the Board. McLuhan told the Board that traditional schools are “like Venice... sinking rapidly.” He told them, “Don’t spend any more money on bricks and mortar” for traditional schools because they “do not belong in the age of instant information.”
When SEED became a year-round school in October 1970, the meaning of its name was changed to “Shared Experience Exploration and Discovery.” The Toronto Board of Education provided $40,000 for the first year of operation in 1970-1971. SEED students were expected to use the city as their school room, with individuals taking typing at a business office, for example, or chemistry at a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. The first teachers (called “co-ordinators”) were Les Birmingham and Murray Shukyn, who were also the co-founders. SEED was influenced by the philosophy of A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School in England.
Official enrolment in Grades 9 to 13 was capped at 100 students, who were eligible to earn high school credits and diplomas. A small core group of four or five certified teachers was hired, so that students could take traditional subjects (mathematics, English, foreign language, science) to qualify for university entrance. They could also earn high-school credits for a wide range of different subjects, under the guidance of part-time volunteers from the community (called “catalysts”): professionals from museums, art galleries, courts, offices, and factories. For example, noted science fiction author Judith Merrill (who lived in Toronto at the time) ran a weekly science fiction seminar at SEED from 1972 to 1973. That catalyst system made SEED unique among Toronto’s alternative schools at the time. The students ran the school and met directly with the Board of Education.
SEED was so successful and popular with students that it opened the door for other alternative schools in the Toronto area. SEED still offers alternative schooling for Grades 11 and 12; and is North America’s oldest public alternative secondary school.
3) Alternative Independent Study Program (AISP)
The Alternative Independent Study Program (AISP), founded in 1971, was the first Board of Education operated alternative school founded in North York. At the time, North York was a separate borough of Metro Toronto. Following upon the success of SEED, the North York Board of Education agreed to a proposal from a group of students and parents to create an alternative high school program for Grades 11, 12, and 13 students. The enrollment of the first 160 students was determined by a lottery of the students who wished to attend.
The AISP school had a full complement of teachers, and its Programme Director was Jack Gillette. It also drew on the help of volunteer resource people, or catalysts.
Notable alumni of AISP include film actor Keanu Reeves, science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, writer, editor and writing teacher Stuart Ross, lawyer and writer Robert Rotenberg, blues musician Colin Linden, and economist and author Jeff Rubin. Miriam Garfinkle, who went on to become a physician and well-known Toronto activist, was a member of the group of students and parents who founded AISP, and then became part of its first cohort of students in 1971. Her future partner Ulli Diemer, now co-ordinator of Connexions, was an AISP catalyst during the its first year of operation. AISP still exists, now operating under the name Avondale Alternative Secondary School.
4) Wandering Spirit Survival School
Wandering Spirit Survival School was founded in the mid-1970s on the initiative of Pauline Shirt and Vern Harper, who were looking for a school for their own child. They searched for a school that was culturally safe and nurtured their son’s Indigenous identity. When a school couldn’t be found, they founded their own school known as Wandering Spirit Survival School, which was initially housed in the Sackville School building. The Toronto School Board designated the school an alternative school in 1977. (See article in Seven News, Volume 9, Number 19, February 10, 1979), p. 3.
In 1983, the school was recognized by the Toronto School Board as a Cultural Survival/Native Way program. In 1989, the program was renamed First Nations School of Toronto (FNST). Then in 2018/19, the school returned to its original roots and after a renaming ceremony, is now called Kapapamahchakwew - Wandering Spirit School.
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