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Democratic Education and Free Schooling Worldwide

Wikipedia Article on Democratic Education

Alternative Education Resource Organization

Directory of Democratic Education

A Related Canadian School: Vancouver’s Windsor House


Opening in September, 1972, ALPHA (A Lot of People Hoping for an Alternative) was the first elementary alternative public school in Toronto. It was founded by interested parents, who met for a year at OISE to create a proposal that was inspired in good part by the 1968 Ontario Hall-Dennis Report. Titled The A.L.P.H.A. Experience, the proposal was accepted by the Toronto Board of Education on Dec. 16, 1971. ALPHA was to be self-governed by its parent body who designed the school, volunteered their labour, and hired staff.

The first year of this new model was difficult. ALPHA’s population of 90 students dropped to about 40, and staff left. As remaining parents worked to overcome the difficulties, the Toronto Board of Education continued to support the school. It was the working model of Summerhill—the continuing, private, free school begun in 1921 by A. S. Neill in rural England–that helped early parents and staff to include students in meaningful choice, and to deal with conflict and disruptive behaviour in a supportive, non-authoritarian setting.

The 1973 hiring of teacher Susan Garrard is recognized as a major factor in ALPHA’s survival. Until her retirement in 1996, Susan mentored an egalitarian approach to education and school governance. A teaching team crystallized around her whose descendants, in collaboration with parent and student communities through the years, continue the school’s democratic culture and its pedagogy based on multi-age grouping and non-competitive learning. This philosophy is expressed in ALPHA’s motto, “Sharing Education”.

In 1978, with the demolition of its first home in the Broadview YMCA, ALPHA moved to its current site at 20 Brant Street. This central, transit-friendly site, shared now with Oasis Secondary Alternative School, is accessible to all economic classes. Over the years, the parent community accessed various greening programs to turn the asphalt playground into a green-fringed oasis that facilitates free play, fantasy and gardening as well as sports and games.

The democracy of ALPHA’s parent-teacher cooperative also went through several stages. In 1973, the ALPHA Community had declared “The ultimate decision-making body is a meeting of the community as a whole,” but it took another few years to figure out how to achieve this. In 1981, using Quaker meeting processes as a model, ALPHA discarded all forms of executive and settled on its current structure. At the monthly meeting, parents volunteer to chair and take notes, anyone can place an item on the agenda, and decisions are made by consensus.

ALPHA is currently a K-6 school. In 2007, ALPHA parents created Alpha II at another TDSB site, as a continuation of the ALPHA philosophy from Grade 7 through to Grade 12.

ALPHA continues to evolve as parents and teachers work together to support the students’ learning, to solve problems, and to revisit and refine ALPHA’s democratic processes. Its teaching team includes a variety of talents, backgrounds and teaching styles. It has made a commitment to ethnic diversity in school community-building. Through changing and challenging times, ALPHA is ever shifting and adjusting to strengthen its identity as an accessible, community-supported, public democratic school.

Living and Learning: The Hall-Dennis Report

In 1968, a 24-member committee–chaired by Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Emmett Hall, and school principal Dr. Lloyd Dennis—produced Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario (known as the Hall-Dennis Report), providing the most visionary education recommendations in Ontario’s history.

Based on Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Hall-Dennis supported a pluralistic, non-judgmental approach in which the “welfare of the individual child must be paramount in making decisions, and no stereotyped attitude, or condition of class, economic status, or environment should prejudice…” (Hall, Dennis et al., 1968, The Truth Shall Make You Free, para. 27). For each child, every gift was to have an opportunity for development and every disability was to be accommodated “in an atmosphere of self respect and dignity, and without the stigma of failure” (para. 29).

To attain these goals, Hall-Dennis called for a rethinking of how to represent student progress. Recommendation 74 was: “Abandon the use of class standing, percentage marks, and letter grades in favor of parent and pupil counseling as a method of reporting individual progress”. The Report recommended that there be no examinations except “where the experience would be of value to students planning to attend universities where formal examinations may still be in use” (Hall, Dennis et al., 1968, Recommendations, No. 75).   “[L]ock-step systems of organizing pupils, such as grades, streams, programs, etc” were to be eliminated (No. 3).

The Hall-Dennis Report took a fresh look at education. Its principles were based on human rights and democracy and its findings on broad research into educational needs, approaches, and possibilities. It offered opportunity to those willing to take up the work of moving Ontario’s education system toward more effective and humane education methods and a more just and democratic social structure. This opportunity was embraced by many individual parents, teachers and schools, and soon inspired the creation of new models of Ontario public schools.

The Hall-Dennis Report was one of the main inspirations for the parents who created ALPHA Alternative School in 1972 and Alpha II in 2007 as community-operated schools where student-directed learning could be fostered. ALPHA had other influences as well as Hall-Dennis, but it can be seen as an authentic and lasting legacy of a document that still has much to offer public education.

On May 14, 2008, the TVO aired an episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin, entitled “Hall-Dennis at 40”.  The program featured four of the original members of the Hall-Dennis Committee, all of whom expressed their conviction that the Hall-Dennis Report still offered the best solutions for Ontario Education. This program is available online here.

The Hall-Dennis Report is available online here.

The Founding Document: “The ALPHA Experience”

(approved by the Toronto Board of Education – 1971)


We are an ever-growing community of educationally concerned people.

We agree that important innovations can be found within some Toronto schools, and that we would like to incorporate them in our educational program.

However, we do not feel that our aims are being met

  1. sufficiently in any one existing program
  2. consistently throughout all grades
  3. with sufficient parent participation.

We believe in the need for the school environment to be designed so as to consciously reflect our community’s (ALPHA’s) values of cooperation, tolerance of diversity, freedom of expression, autonomy, and social responsibility. Competition in the program will be de-emphasized. Nowhere will competition be supported where it leads to feelings of self-worth based upon comparative success or failure.

With the help of interested parents, teachers, children, and adults of all ages, our community school will afford the opportunity for 4 – 13 year olds to choose not only what they learn, but how and when they learn. Communication skills will share equal emphasis with the arts, sciences, and community-related projects. The role of teacher will be filled not only by certified teachers, but by children, parents, and resource people coming into the school on a regular basis. Resources available in the program will reflect a variety of different learning styles. For example, in teaching computation, both discovery learning techniques as well as programmed texts should be made available.

Enrollment in the school will be limited initially to approximately 100 children. The community will directly participate in the selection of staff and, with the staff and students, help determine the curriculum.

I. Some Basics

The educational environment to be designed should:

  1. maximize the opportunity for the development of:
    1. Competence – the skills and abilities (intellectual, social, and emotional) basic to life in the complex society of the future.
      For example:

      1. a facility for reading and communication
      2. a facility for computation
      3. learning how to learn so that a lifetime becomes a continuous educational experience
      4. knowledge of the society of which one is a part
      5. developing an ability to coordinate with others on cooperative enterprises
      6. developing interpersonal skills of understanding and relating necessary for a rich personal life
    2. Initiative – the ability and motivation to control the terms of reference of one’s life (an “inner directedness”)
    3. Self-respect – the creation of feelings of positive self-worth based on one’s own uniqueness and ability to grow in both intellectual and emotional terms
  2. reflect and nurture the values of:
    1. Cooperation – the desirability and necessity to consider others in problem solving (both from the standpoint of sharing experience and knowledge as well as re-affirming community)
    2. Diversity – acceptance and positive valuing of differences among people
    3. Freedom of expression
    4. Autonomy – being able to control one’s life
    5. Social responsibility – meaningful and continuous interpersonal involvement within an extended group

II. Factors that bear on maximizing the development of competence, initiative, and self-respect, encouraging children and adults to define, pursue, and achieve their own educational goals.

  1. Resources available in the program will reflect a variety of different learning styles. For example, in teaching computation both discovery learning techniques as well as programmed texts should be made available.
  2. Although the environment for the program will be well thought out and structured, there will be no restrictions on a child’s use of resources. Thus the program will be non-graded; without any rules about what material a child should be exposed to at what time of day or at what age. Neither will a child be restricted to choice of activity or pace at which he should learn.
  3. There will be no norms of skill acquisition and no formal evaluation of a child’s performance. However, activity records may be kept by both resource people and the children themselves.
  4. Community inputs in terms of “instruction” will allow both a lowering of the teacher/student ratio and the opportunity for continuous curriculum development. This curriculum development will reflect both a wide range of activities and interests as well as the prospects of devising materials directly related to the lives of the children.
  5. Interaction with the “host community” in terms of offering and encouraging the use of the “ALPHA Experience” as a local community resource. This point is important to the prevention of the ALPHA community from becoming insular.
  6. Allowing opportunities for private as well as public learning experiences. In our present school almost all behaviour is public behaviour – behaviour performance in the presence of others. Such a context of learning often has detrimental effects which may be eliminated if the opportunity for private experiences could be facilitated.
  7. Competition in the program will be de-emphasized. Nowhere will competition be supported where it leads to feelings of self-worth based upon comparative success or failure.

III. Factors through which value development is to be achieved.

The following are seen as a variety of sources of influence:

  1. Modeling behaviour – adult members of the school community exhibiting behaviour toward each other and toward children which are reflective of the above values.
  2. Choice of curriculum materials – use of materials that require both individual and cooperative work, that reflect diversity and freedom of expression, that emphasize an individual’s responsibility to the larger group, etc.
  3. Social reinforcement – humans are inherently social animals dependent on love and recognition for survival. Behaviour expressive of the above values will be given support via this mode of influence.
  4. Organization of interpersonal relations in the program to shift the source of influence from formal authority to functional competence.
  5. The organization of time and space in the program can be seen as a media through which value priorities can be carried. Activities are to be organized so that all program objectives receive equal importance. There should be no perception of a core and fringe activities.
  6. By maintaining and fostering a heterogeneous community (in terms of background and life style) the value of diversity can be fostered.

IV. Some other issues

  1. When the school opens in September 1972 the minimum areas to be offered will be language arts, computational instruction, and sensory development (music, art, drama, other self-expression forms) and what community inputs can be provided.
  2. The materials chosen and constructed will be constrained by consideration of: teacher capabilities, the need to reflect variety of learning styles, value emphases, and community resources.
  3. The material should be such that knowledge areas to be presented are embedded in the context of some relevant life settings, rather than for example, computation taught in the abstract.
  4. The teachers in program will need to have the following capabilities:
    1. professionally knowledgeable about the use of resources; capable of devising environments that vary in their assumptions about learning
    2. ability to work with the community and reflect in behaviour the dominant community values
    3. be able to diagnose children’s behaviour in terms of what values it represents
    4. capable of relating well to kids
    5. ability to facilitate continuous curriculum development
  5. Once the program is approved, a procedure needs to be devised for the continuous monitoring and evaluation of the program.
  6. Ideally, we would like to see the program organized into four learning centers: science, arts, communications (language development including arithmetic) and community-related projects. There would be no separate area for primary children but rather material would be available in each of the above areas for both younger and older kids. Additionally, staff and community would be responsible for trying to foster activities in each of these areas which were integrally interlinked.

V. Governance

  1. Head teacher to be appointed as soon as possible.
  2. School to be governed by a staff-community council.
  3. With regard to internal conflict:
    1. an individual’s rights are always subject to the rights of the community – a child or teacher does not have complete freedom
    2. for older children “reality centered” control is appropriate. More directiveness, however, would be used with younger children.