Since 1972, ALPHA Alternative School has helped students to “acquire the knowledge, skills, and values they need to become responsible members of a democratic society” (TDSB Mission Statement). In order to nurture democracy, school must become “a genuine form of active community life, instead of a place set apart in which to learn lessons” (Dewey).
A Focus on Democracy
ALPHA focuses on democracy: the values, practices, freedoms and responsibilities of democracy, and the effectiveness of democratic education in promoting a lifelong love of learning. ALPHA’s governance, organization and justice systems are democratic. In daily life, the individual characters and passions of students are appreciated and supported. Yet, in the social atmosphere of ALPHA, students find that they must think of others as well as themselves. Through daily interactions, they learn what English educator A. S. Neill referred to as the vital difference between “freedom and license”. ALPHA students learn respect through being respected. Daily life offers many opportunities for adults as well as children to question or to be questioned. ALPHA’s informal atmosphere also offers much opportunity for fun and connection.
Non-Coercive, Holistic, Learner-Centered Education
ALPHA belongs firmly to the long tradition of learner-centered education that sees a child’s curiosity as the primary driver for knowledge acquisition. Long before they arrive at school, children demonstrate their drive and capability by learning their first language, imitating, exploring and asking questions. ALPHA respects children’s desire to become competent and participate in the greater world.
At ALPHA, learning is respected as an intrinsic aspect of living: it is not isolated from sociability, physicality, creativity, play, or any other necessity. The parents and educators of ALPHA act on the belief that learning requires consensual, holistic involvement. The differing talents and learning styles of students are respected: children gain skills at their own pace, without judgment. In ALPHA’s non-competitive environment, learning is both social and cooperative and individual and personal. Much learning at ALPHA is conversational. Literacy educator Paulo Freire emphasized the importance of “dialogue… as an indispensable component of the process of both learning and knowing.”
While staff provide students with ongoing opportunities to engage with literacy, numeracy, the arts and the physical and social sciences, children and families bring their skills and interests to school to share: this is why ALPHA’s motto is Sharing Education.
What makes ALPHA a truly unique alternative? It is the manner of learning, not so much the subjects learned, that sets ALPHA apart. We recognize that everyone learns differently, at different rates, and has different interests. Therefore, teachers research a wide variety of specific innovative and progressive pedagogies. Aspects of holistic, arts-infused, experiential, Montessori, and critical pedagogy approaches (to name but a few) have been employed where they work in specific contexts within a democratic framework. Perhaps Ayers’ definition of curriculum best describes this approach: “curriculum is an ongoing engagement with the problem of determining what knowledge and experiences are most worthwhile. With each person and each situation, that problem takes on unique shadings and different meanings.”
The School Community
ALPHA students exercise genuine choice in matters important to them, including how they spend much of their day. They also get substantial experience in making group decisions, and taking responsibility for them. A six year old can chair a meeting at ALPHA, and a four-year old might teach you, or point out when you break a rule.
ALPHA alumni tend to communicate that their years at ALPHA were treasured and prepared them sufficiently for the transition to secondary and post-secondary schools. In 2007, a group of parents created Alpha II in order to offer students the opportunity to spend their entire school career in self-directed learning.
ALPHA staff agree on ALPHA’s fundamentally democratic framework and commit to working as a team, spending many planning hours together to coordinate their efforts. In ALPHA’s multi-age groupings, they get to know all the children well. Their individual teaching styles make available a range of approaches and their many interests and talents greatly enrich ALPHA’s programming.
ALPHA parents started the school in 1972, and it is still operated as a parent-teacher cooperative. Major decisions are made at the monthly parent/teacher meeting. Parent participation in the school during the day or through committee work is what enables ALPHA to function. Those who are free during the day are encouraged to spend time in the school, either as a volunteer helper for the teachers or sharing a special skill or interest. Others are expected to be actively involved on work committees.
The Toronto District School Board enables ALPHA to offer its form of democratic education to families of every income level. Through its funding, its site and its teaching, administrative and care-taking staff, it supports ALPHA at the same per pupil level as other public schools.
Through consultation and partnership, the ALPHA Community as a whole works out the complex problems involved in offering a rare and valuable education model in a publicly-funded education system.
The Importance of Consensus
ALPHA is a democracy based on consensus. Consensus is achieved when different points of view are incorporated through discussion. The goal is not compromise but refinement of a proposal until everyone can live with the decision. Each person doesn’t have to agree with the decision–often consensus is achieved when those who disagree feel that the proposal is important to most of the community, the more risky elements have been dealt with in the discussion, and it is thus worth a try. What is most important to achieving consensus is that everyone’s voice is heard and they feel part of making the decision.
individualized programming, multi-age grouping, cooperative learning, creative problem-solving, critical thinking, emphasis on imagination and the arts, social justice, conflict resolution through restorative justice, consensus-based decision-making, parent involvement, a sharing, nurturing environment, and a supportive community of concerned, caring parents.