Alternative Schools Advisory Committee,
Ottawa-Carleton District School Board
On September 3, 1998, the Director's Council of Superintendents of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board recommended that "the designation of the alternative elementary school be removed. A Discussion Paper/Review of the Literature on elementary alternative schools and programs was also circulated. The following research paper briefly discusses the history, philosophy and distinctiveness of the alternative program. The issues of choice, equity and outcomes are examined, and a new program delivery model for the future is presented.
This paper was produced for the Alternative Schools Advisory Committee by:
Kirsten Kozolanka, Churchill Alternative School
writer and researcher
Lillian Robinson, Grant Alternative School
Note: Appendices referred to in the text comprise materials developed by teachers, parents and students at alternative schools within the board; Ottawa and Toronto board reports; and selected articles. A complete version of this report including the appendices can be obtained from ASAC or from alternative school councils.
BackgroundFor more than 30 years, boards of education across Canada and internationally have been responding to requests from parents, teachers, students and communities to establish public alternatives to regular schools.
The popularity and success of alternative programs has resulted in continued demand and growth, thereby "institutionalizing diversity" in education systems and providing program choice for students, parents and staff (Tyack 1974, Warren 1978, Metz 1981):
- In Toronto, Ontario's other large urban centre, alternative programs continue to enjoy strong support from the newly amalgamated district school board as a valued element of their education delivery. They have experienced sustained demand for all grade level programs, most particularly at the intermediate level: "We have had no decline and are not threatened in any way," said Sandra Best, Alternative Schools Liaison Officer, Metro Toronto District School Board, in a recent interview. "Our open houses are packed."
- In Ottawa, the program began as a primary level pilot project at the Lady Evelyn school facility in 1982. During the first three years, it was evaluated by independent researchers (Watkin and Bonyun, 1983-5) and positively reviewed. With this endorsement and in response to demand, the program was allowed to expand over time to three additional locations (Churchill in 1984, Crichton in 1987 and Riverview in 1985) and into the junior grades by 1989.
- In 1986, The Ontario Provincial Review Report No.3: Alternative Schools and Programs in the Public System (1986), which studied 65 alternative schools programs in 27 school boards, recommended that alternative schools be established, maintained and periodically reviewed, effectively endorsing these programs in provincial policy.
- Alternative schools in Ottawa attract a high number of interested students from the innovative On-site Student Teacher Program at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Education due to the interest in working in the alternative school climate which has been shown to differ considerably from other schools.
- In September 1994, the noted journal Educational Leadership devoted an entire issue to alternative schools. Dr. Mary Anne Raywid's article, "Alternative Schools: The State of the Art," is featured in this issue as a synthesis of available literature on the phenomenon of alternative schools. She clearly notes that "[a]lternative schools in the public sector are alive and well and likely to remain so."
- The forthcoming McGill Engagement Study (Student Engagement in Learning and School Life from the Office of Research on Educational Policy, McGill University (October 98 publishing date) includes a very favourable review of the one area alternative school in the study, confirming that the alternative program continues to use a wide continuum of innovative instructional and assessment methods (OBE 1990). As preliminary findings from the study show, these methods are structured to adequately respond to students as individuals with unique learning styles, interests, learning rates, developmental and affective needs and to engage students as active agents in their own learning.
These methods result in an ongoing development of innovations, openness to new ideas and creative responses by the whole community of learners (staff, parents and children). Recent examples would include a strong interest among alternative schools in expanded forms of assessment and reporting, i.e. authentic assessments based on portfolios, rubrics, student-led conferences and outcomes-based models, as well as enhancing and renewing alternativeness in established programs by documenting alternative practices.
Alternative Schools Review Committee Report
In 1990, the alternative program underwent an intensive year-long study with participation from administration, non-alternative and alternative principals, teachers and parents.
The report from the study, Alternative Schools Review Committee Report (OBE 1990) strongly emphasized the important point from the outset that the kind of elementary alternative schools which exist in the former OBE jurisdiction are learning-style alternative schools (1990:6). This is in contrast to many other kinds of alternative programs offered in other jurisdictions, internationally and at other grade levels. A list of such programs (Kroetzsch 1997:3) is provided in the OCDSB Review of the Literature (1998).
The 1990 report found these elementary alternative schools in Ottawa to be equitable in terms of cost-effectiveness, program equity and social equity with "instructional costs comparable to those for all other schools of similar enrollment" and with only one sub-total cost (transportation) costing slightly more (1990:17) The higher transportation costs would apply to any program with fewer sites, so the report suggested that expansion to more geographic area would see these costs diminish. This is, in fact, what happened as more sites were opened in the following years.
A subsequent review of these costs in the 1995 budget process for an OBE Management Committee Presentation (Appendix A) confirmed this effect with cost per pupil declining from $524 in 1993 to $397 in 1995, even before the advent of triple busing. Overall costs were lower in comparison to the average of all of the OBE schools ranging between the 11th and 38th percentile. They were found to cost less than a comparable basket of non-alternative schools. The newest research on school size strongly suggests that smaller schools (consistent with current enrolment at most Ottawa alternative schools) are in fact less expensive to operate (Mosle 1995, Sergiovanni 1996).
The 1990 report thus found the alternative program to be equitable, cost-effective and a valued asset to the board. In response to community initiatives, the program subsequently expanded to one more K-6 school (Grant in 1991)) and into the intermediate grades (Summit in 1991), currently successfully co-located within the multi-purpose Fisher Park site) and experienced sustained growth (Appendix B):
- 1988 48.5%
1995 3.5% (OBE 1990)
In the last several years, growth in the system has flattened and some uncertainty has surrounded the program, both combining to slow this pattern.
Equity and Outcomes in the Alternative ProgramStudents attending alternative schools reflect a wide spectrum of socio-economic and educational realities. Alternative school profiles collected by the Education Quality Assessment Office, when compared to the profiles of neighbouring schools, show similar patterns (EQAO 1998).
At least two of our schools, Riverview and Lady Evelyn, serve a population that with much higher ESL needs than the board average. In addition, alternative schools serve a similar proportion of Special Education and SERT students as neighbouring schools, with at least one school (Churchill) with a higher percentage than the board average.
This current information paints a reassuring portrait of schools that continue to reflect the program and social equity outlined in the 1990 report.
Since the program delivery model for the alternative program chosen by the old Ottawa Board of Education consisted of assigning older, almost empty school facilities to the new programs, coupled with a strong commitment to accessibility for every student who wished to attend, socio-economic profiles for area alternative schools are consistent with those in neighbourhood schools.
Student outcomes is an area of some confusion for some observers of alternative programs who mistakenly believe that we boast better results for our students.
The OCDSB paper asks: "Is different better?" It quotes Fuller (1996) as concluding that there is "not enough evidence currently available to prove that [public school] choice schools increase children's achievement." Leaving aside the confusion over the term "choice school" for later, this is in direct contrast to the research of alternative program specialist Dr. Mary Anne Raywid, who has found "evidence that choice programs lead to higher academic achievement, graduation rates, more parental satisfaction and higher teacher morale" (Fiske 1991). Neither of these conclusions is very helpful, although the breadth of Dr. Raywid's research is impressive (she is cited as having researched 120 districts in the U.S.) and lends credence to her claim.
What needs to be pointed out here is that learning-style alternative schools in Ottawa have made no truth claims of "better" outcomes in the traditional sense that this implies, i.e. graded evaluation. The crux is that alternative programs, through a child-directed approach to learning, move students differently towards the same learning objective, but with the object to enhance ownership of learning and to preserve motivation. This is not measurable through standard evaluation or available consistently in regular programs. In other words, different is not better, it is "merely" different.
That being said, we must also acknowledge that the first year of provincial standardized testing for grade 3 students places board alternative program schools well- in the top 10 percent- among all then-OBE schools (EQAO 1997). But test results in alternative schools were comparable to those in neighbouring schools.
The individualized approach and various independent and small group study arrangements characteristic of the alternative approach allow many gifted and bright students to work beyond the program expectations while at the same time accommodating remedial work for others. This is accomplished without added expense and disruption for the students of moving to other programs in order to have their needs met and be appropriately challenged (Raywid 1984).
In terms of equity and outcomes within the system, the alternative program has always covered and continues to cover the same curriculum as regular program schools to statistically the same students at the same instructional cost with substantially the same outcomes.
The Learning-Style Alternative ProgramIn her article "Alternative Schools: The State of the Art" (Appendix C ), Dr. Mary Anne Raywid (1) makes clear distinctions between kinds of alternative school models, just as the 1990 review report did, with her Type 1 model most closely resembling Ottawa alternative schools:
Type 1 alternatives seek to make school challenging and fulfilling for all involved. Their efforts have yielded many innovations, a number of which are now widely recommended as improvement measures for all schools. Type 1 alternatives virtually always reflect organizational and administrative departures from the traditional, as well as programmatic innovations. These are today's clearest examples of "restructured" schools (Hawley 1991). Type 1 alternatives are schools of choice and are usually popular.
Dr. Raywid suggests that three sets of factors appear to account for the success of alternative schools. Two of these factors she attributes to Wehlage and his colleagues (1989) and she adds a third:
- First, these schools generate and sustain community within them.
- Second, they make learning engaging.
- Third, they provide the school organizational structure needed to sustain the first two.
This third point speaks to the holistic nature of the work of alternative schools which permeates all aspects of life in an alternative educational community: "[T]he school's social order," she says, " becomes dependent on norms rather than rules, and far more collaborative effort occurs among both students and staff than in other schools" (1994).
In short, she writes, "[a] good alternative school represents a carefully built community, an engaging instructional program, and a synchronized set of organizational arrangements."
Dr. Raywid terms Type 1 alternatives as "avant-garde," saying they have been a source of ideas for strategies and direction and exerted considerable influence on a number of developments. The organizational features of alternative schools have been used successfully to refashion high schools in both New York City and Philadelphia (Henderson and Raywid 1994).
Dr. Raywid's research is important to the understanding of the many ways the term "alternative" is used to describe non-mainstream programs in public education and the confusion that arises when this is misunderstood. The recent OCDSB Review of the Literature (1998) has confused types of alternative schools and has attributed inappropriately characteristics and implications to the Ottawa "learning-style" program. Similarly, the report confuses the American term "school of choice"(Fuller, Hill)- which in the U.S. means charter schools and voucher-based school systems- with the narrower Canadian context of choice (Levin, Rachlis). In addition to charter schools and publicly supported voucher programs, these American choice models cited in the OCDSB report include magnet schools (Fuller), core knowledge (back-to-basics) and Harris Bilingual (Spanish/English) Immersion Schools (Bomotti) and others. None of these is a Type 1 alternative school.
Alternative Learning: A Responsible ChoiceThe 1990 OBE report emphasized the critical point that a small but healthy element of choice within the public education system was necessary "in order to accommodate parents who might otherwise seek educational alternatives outside the public school system." A rigorous process had been developed to facilitate the establishment of new initiatives for alternative schools and the Alternative Schools Advisory Committee, an OBE community advisory committee, had the mandate of vetting proposals for new alternative program sites and helping potential programs emerge through this process (1990:5).
Choices were already provided through French Immersion (EFI, MFI and LFI), Special Education, Gifted, etc., and so any criticism of "losing" students and parents from community schools to alternative schools could be equally applied to those programs (1990:15).
Recently, the loss of students from the public school system has been identified by researchers as a major problem, as the public education system faces chronic underfunding. In a presentation to trustees of the OCDSB earlier this year, the Alternative Schools Advisory Committee wrote:
The interest in private or home schooling options has increased significantly. If the system continues to be underfunded and programs disappear, parents will not believe that their children are being well-served and will make private arrangements. Private choices result in loss of control over educational policy and loss of valuable education dollars for public school boards. By providing a reasonable learning choice within the system, we believe alternative schools are a safety valve, keeping dollars, choice and committed parents within the system. [Italics added]
Recent articles in Education Update (March 1996, p. 4) and The Canadian School Executive (February 1996, p. 11) also make these points about shrinking public education dollars and the parallel increase in home schooling and other privatized schooling options.
The OCDSB paper raises concerns about "unrestrained choice" (Fuller) and focusing too closely on extrinsic rewards such as letter grades and narrowly defined academic competitiveness and achievement by parents (Kohn).
After reviewing the paper and research on which it was based, we must point out that the subject schools and programs which raised these concerns in the literature quoted were not matched to the learning-style alternative program model or the accessible delivery that exists in the former OBE.
In particular, Alfie Kohn's body of research actually affirms the kind of educational approach used in learning-style alternative schools. His work is often cited as support for the alternative philosophy. The article from which the lengthy and negative quote in the OCDSB paper is taken is not in any way directed at alternative schools, although the decontextualized citation leaves that impression. In contrast, the succinct article included here as Appendix D is more indicative of his support for alternative learning.
None of these "choice" programs mentioned in the OCDSB paper exist locally or provincially, but are the result of more than a decade of movement toward privatization in the U.S. Nor are they included in any vision originating in the alternative schools community in Ottawa.
Because Alternative School Advisory Committee parents are integrally involved in introducing and sustaining our schools, we do have a body of independent research and writing accumulated which is closely matched to the nature of our program (Appendix E is an example of our contribution to the field).
This research underscores the position consistently espoused by the alternative schools locally that a reasonable level of diversity in curriculum delivery model enhances learning, engages children and parents, and strengthens our public school system.
Deborah Meier (2) has also written at length about choice and public education and contrasts it with the unrestrained choice models mentioned in the OCDSB paper: "For students with divergent learning styles or special needs, [alternative-style learning] builds diversity into the system and allows a school system to be responsive to different needs, on the part of both teachers and students" (Fiske 1991).
Meier, whose experience as a teacher includes the struggle to revitalize public education in the U.S., rejects unrestrained choice:
The alternative to privatization is good public education, and choice is the catalyst We do not need to buy into the rhetoric that too often surrounds choice: about the rigors of the marketplace, the virtues of private schooling, and the inherent mediocrity of public schools. By using choice judiciously we can have the virtues of both without undermining public education. [Italics added]
A recent editorial in The Ottawa Citizen also expresses concerns with what it calls a "cookie-cutter" approach to education locally and eloquently describes the difference in climate and culture found at an area alternative school (Appendix F): "[I]t's a blunder for the province and the board to push schools into a cookie-cutter sameness that will breed disinterest and mediocrity."
Effective Schools and Alternative ProgramsJust as the OCDSB paper exhibited confusion over the varied meanings of the "schools of choice" and "alternative," it also has a shaky grasp of another key concept, "effective schools." This latter concept is of great significance to the current debate over the future of the alternative program in this board and therefore requires clarification.
The implication from the OCDSB paper and current discussion at the board is that every school in the system should be an effective school. We must be clear that the characteristics of an effective school as described and quoted should in fact be identified as those of the Effective Schools movement. The Effective Schools movement is a conservative, back-to-basics method of delivering education. It is diametrically opposed to a learning-style alternative school. Further, it should be made clear that these two streams of education reform are moving in two radically different directions.
In other words, while we of course are in agreement that every school in the OCDSB should be an effective school, we believe it is both a radical departure for the public education system as well as misguided for every school to be an Effective School, in the formal sense of that term.
In fact, the narrow focus of the Edmonds article elicited an immediate rebuttal in Educational Leadership under the title "Schools alone are Insufficient," pointing out that "schools must provide quality instruction... but the home and the individual student are also important factors" (Scott and Walberg 1979).
Meier writes in the Phi Delta Kappan that these two visions "stand in chilling contrast to each other" (1995:369). One vision works from the top down, with the top "defining purposes and content as well as how to measure them" and the bottom doing the "nuts and bolts" labour. The other vision sees the only useful top-down reforms as those that "help to create and sustain self-governing learning communities" (1995:369-70). Meier does not mention specifically either Effective Schools or learning-style alternative schools, but she in essence describes the differences between the two approaches. Raywid (1994:31) for her part characterizes the Effective Schools movement by name as seeking reform "through tightening and intensifying bureaucracy." The alternative vision, on the other hand, "emphasizes respect for the wholeness of both subject matter and human learning," rather than breaking everything down into bits and pieces (1995:371).
Further, the importance of the other two legs (students and home) of the three-legged stool ignored by Edmonds and posed by Scott and Walberg, as it is in alternative schools, is emphasized by Epstein (1995), who writes that school can either be a battleground or a homeland.
Indeed, this is one of the most visible signs of an alternative school- what has been referred to as "the open door" policy, which sees the teacher, parent and student working together within a committed partnership.
The critical question should not be "can this be transferred to regular program schools?" because it is obvious that innovative practices originating in alternative schools have made their way successfully into regular programs. The danger arises when it is believed that adopting alternative practices piecemeal adds up to a transfer of the philosophy.
Levin (1984), when referring to Toronto alternative schools, offers a distinguishing characteristic which is also reflected in Ottawa alternative programs: "[E]ach offers a consistent educational philosophy and a set of practices which provides continuity across subjects and grade levels." (Appendix G contains a selection of statements of philosophy from area alternative schools.)
Dr. Raywid (1994:30) as well recognizes the need for a holistic and systemic approach to alternative programs: "A good alternative school represents a carefully built community, an engaging instructional program, and a synchronized set of organizational advantages but these advantages will probably elude piecemeal adopters."
All this is not to say that the alternative vision is the only way of delivering education, but to once again emphasize that has its place within a public school system, offering responsible and reasonable choice.
Our Vision: A New Program Delivery ModelA major factor affecting alternativeness in our communities was the former OBE's choice of program delivery model. In the case of all five primary-junior alternative schools, a regular program had existed previously in an aging facility on the same site. The pattern was the same: Declining enrolment meant the demise of the regular program and an alternative program was then initiated immediately. The alternative programs were so popular that each facility quickly reached capacity enrolment.
Overcrowding was one problem that plagued the program as a result of the delivery model; commitment to the program from incoming parents was another. It was unclear whether children living close to the alternative schools attended because their parents wanted them to be taught alternatively or simply to go to the closest school. This occurred because the former OBE quite rightly took the view that every child had right of access to the program, however, the delivery model chosen was not compatible with this principle.
In other cases, children were bused to an alternative program, rather than walk to a closer neighbourhood school. This naturally lessened the overall level of commitment to the alternative philosophy. Again, this was a drawback in the chosen delivery model rather than in the program itself.
Despite these drawbacks, five primary-junior communities have continued to thrive. Under the newly amalgamated board of Ottawa-Carleton, alternative schools face an impressive challenge: how to extend the program so that all students of OCDSB have access to it. A further challenge is to do so while continuing to maintain costs comparable to other board programs.
Alternative Schools Advisory Committee is proposing a dual-option delivery model to meet this challenge.
The first option would see current alternative programs retained as freestanding schools, if numbers warrant. This allows strong alternative communities to continue to thrive. It also recognizes that reorganization of school programs and communities may place at risk some of our full-facility communities and allows them to consider the second option.
The second option would include some existing programs- those with either insufficient numbers to continue as a free-standing program or those facing space allocation situations- and new programs in all areas of the board, but especially in areas where none now exist, if numbers warrant. In this way, parents may chose to seed a new program, perhaps in a new location, if their current free-standing program should not continue.
This second option, the co-located or shared facility model, has precedents elsewhere. (In fact, it is the current Ottawa model that is unique.) In Toronto and Winnipeg, alternative schools share facilities with regular programs. The alternative program usually occupies a fixed space in the shared facility. An optimum enrolment is therefore established at the outset- usually between 50 and 125 students- and a waiting list is kept if necessary. If numbers warrant, more programs are developed.
These programs have the flexibility to choose their purpose or subject focus, as noted in the pamphlet on Toronto alternative schools that is appended (Appendix J). Outgoing students are replaced by the same number of incoming enrolments to stabilize numbers. Other Toronto alternative program policies can be found in Appendix K.
The alternative program in such shared arrangements, with its cooperative and collaborative philosophy, works with a minimum of bureaucracy or supervision. Often there is only a "principal of record," that is, the principal or vice-principal from the larger co-located program is nominally the head administrator for signing purposes, etc.
Resource centres, gymnasia and playgrounds are shared amicably.
According to Sandra Best, coordinator for Toronto alternative schools, the two programs sharing facilities usually hold a regular coordinating meeting, often just prior to the school council meeting for both programs. Membership in the bi-school committee is small, usually comprising only one or two parent and staff representatives from each school. This committee is the only consistent administrative element common to all Toronto shared-facility programs.
This model allows parents to make a real choice of program for their children, one based on philosophy rather than location or transportation. This has been the case at Summit, Ottawa's only intermediate program. Summit has been housed successfully in Fisher Park School with a regular program for several years. Before that, it was co-located happily with Lady Evelyn Alternative School until that school became crowded. Parents and students thus make a conscious choice when they choose Summit. (And, in fact, students from across the entire region of the board are exercising this choice to attend an intermediate alternative program.)
This dual-option delivery model creates flexibility based on community needs. As Alternative Schools Advisory Committee is willing to retain responsibility for vetting new alternative school proposals, much of the mentoring, information-gathering and trouble-shooting that arises from the new business of such proposals would fall, as it always has, on that committee.
This new model has an additional purpose: It allows for the renewal and revitalization of our program under a proven model. Paradoxically, it is both risk-free and a new departure for a program known for its innovation. As the school board itself reorganizes, the alternative program is also willing to renew itself.
An Educational Partnership in ActionWe stress, however, that reorganization and renewal must be undertaken under conditions that include our communities in all aspects of decision-making; that the integrity of the collective experience of 16 years must be valued; and that our philosophy must be respected.
The alternative program already has strong learning communities that are eager to continue- not start over from scratch- their work of giving expression to their educational philosophy, so simply stated in 1986 and still applicable today:
People learn in different ways and need various kinds of organizational structures and instructional techniques.
[No] one type of school or program is best for all (OBE:1990).
Above all, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board must avoid a simplistic rendering of equity as "sameness." The alternative program is not for everyone, just as the regular program or any program of choice suits different learners, different teaching styles and different parental preferences.
Choice must therefore continue to be the hallmark of our public education system. It "affirms the importance of diversity in education. Choice presumes that since students have different needs, interests and ways of learning a school district must offer a variety of educational approaches (Raywid in Fiske)."
Moreover, "choice creates bonds between parents, teachers and students that are in themselves important for any kind of school to proceed. We work harder where our loyalties are tapped and where we believe we have some power, if only the power to make a move. Finally, it creates the conditions that reinforce a sense of membership in a community... (Meier 1995)"
The "alternative" label the board wishes to remove is a proud and accurate indicator of our distinctiveness and a healthy regard for choice. Moreover, it is a sign of institutional commitment to program choice in general and to our program in particular. The Ottawa and area learning community has always sought and developed appropriate programs, initiatives and choices for the students in its care and the alternative community has been a significant contributor to the board's success. The alternative community is prepared to renew this partnership in an atmosphere of consultation, cooperation and inclusiveness.
ReferencesBomotti, Sally. "Why do parents choose alternative schools?" Educational Leadership, October 1996
Case, Barbara J. "Lasting Alternatives: A Lesson in Survival," Phi Delta Kappan, April 1981
Edmonds, R. "Effective Schools for the Urban Poor" Educational Leadership 37(1), 1979
Epstein, J. "Toward a Theory of Family-School Connections: Teacher Practices and Parent Involvement" in K. Hurrelmann, F. Kaufman and F. Losel, eds. Social Intervention: Potential and Constraints. New York: De Guyer, 1987
Fiske, Edward. Smart Schools, Smart Kids: Why do some Schools work? New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991
Fullan, Michael. The New Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers College Press, 1991
Fuller, Bruce. "Is School Choice working?" Educational Leadership, October 1996
Government of Ontario. The Ontario Provincial Review Report No. 3: Alternative Schools and Programs in the Public System. Toronto, 1986
Hill, Paul T. "The Educational Consequences of Choice," Phi Delta Kappan, June 1996
Kohn, Alfie. "Only for my Kid: How Privileged Parents undermine School Reform." Phi Delta Kappan, Spring 1998
Kohn, Alfie. "What to look for in a Classroom," Educational Leadership, September 1996
Levin, Malcolm A. "What's Alternative about Toronto's Alternative Schools?" Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto
McGill University, Office of Research on Educational Policy. McGill Engagement Study: Student Engagement in Learning and School Life. Montreal: 1998 (upcoming, October)
Meier, Deborah. The Power of their Ideas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995
Mosle, Sara. "A Big Answer for Public Education: Small Schools," New York Times Magazine, May 28, 1995
Ottawa Board of Education. "Alternative Schools Review Committee Report," 1990
Ottawa Board of Education, "Provincial Grade 3 Assessment of Reading, Writing and Mathematics," 1997 (for various schools)
Ottawa Board of Education, OBE Management Committee, November 1995
Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, "Discussion Paper: Review of the Literature: Elementary Alternative Schools and Programs (K - 8)." September 4, 1998
Palmer Wolf, Dennie. "Opening up Assessment," Educational Leadership, December 1997-January 1998
Rachlis, Dr. Lorne, "Child Centred Education and Alternative Schools in Ottawa, Part 1" The Canadian School Executive, March 1992
Rachlis, Dr. Lorne, "Child Centred Education and Alternative Schools in Ottawa, Part 2" The Canadian School Executive, February 1992
Raywid, Dr. Mary Anne. "Synthesis of Research: Small Schools: A Reform that Works, Educational Leadership, January 1998
Raywid, Dr. Mary Anne. "Synthesis of Research: Alternative Schools: The State of the Art," Educational Leadership, September 1994
Raywid, Dr. Mary Anne. "Why do these kids love school?" Phi Delta Kappan, April 1992
Sanders, Mavis G. "Building Family Partnerships that Last," Educational Leadership, November 1996
Scherer, Marge. "On Schools where Students want to be: A Conversation with Deborah Meier," Educational Leadership, September 1994
Sergiovanni, Thomas J. "Small Schools, Great Expectations," Educational Leadership, November 1995
Sergiovanni, Thomas J. "Why we should seek substitutes for Leadership," Educational Leadership, February 1992
Thompson, Scott. "Moving from Publicity to Engagement," Educational Leadership, May 1998
Toronto Board of Education. "Alternative Schools: A General Policy." November, 1982
and many other pamphlets, manuals and reports
produced by the alternative community
of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board
- Dr. Mary Anne Raywid is Professor Emerita at Hofstra University, New York Department of Education, Administration and Policy Studies. She is listed in the 'who's who' in the dialogue on school reform issues as "nationally known for her documentation and analysis of the alternative schools movement" and author of the two major syntheses of research on alternative schools (and one on small schools) published in Educational Leadership over the past 15 years (Gross 1985). She has contributed to the periodicals Education Policy and Journal of Negro Education, as well as to the compilation "Public Schools That Work: Creating Community" ("Community: An Alternative School Accomplishment").
- A recent data base search for researchers/authors on alternative programs requested from the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), publishers of the internationally recognized periodical Educational Leadership, listed listed only two major authors, Dr. Raywid and Deborah Meier. Meier is the founder of the Central Park East Alternative Schools and a fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. She is also winner of the MacArthur Prize Fellowship and author of a recent ground-breaking book, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem.
Creating and Maintaining our Distinctiveness
The decision to keep or remove the designation "alternative" as recommended by OCDSB administration seems prompted by an unwillingness to acknowledge the distinctiveness of the program.
The 1990 OBE report made several key observations about the public awareness and acceptance of alternative programs locally which addressed this issue. The critical element in comments was the acknowledgement by both non-professionals and professionals that alternative schools are "exemplars of child-centred learning." At the same time, some reviewers of early alternative programs in Ontario sometimes could not "see" the difference clearly, yet
For parents and pupils, however, differences were frequently related to emotional support, sense of community, equal voice in decision-making, personal attention, respect, and acceptance. The emphasis placed on certain of these variables was the key difference between alternative and conventional schools and programs. (1990:14-15)
In other words, the distinctiveness of alternative communities is both documentable and subjective. Initial reviewers (who may or may not have been familiar with the program) in some cases could not create a long list of objective characteristics for a particular school's distinctiveness, but parents and students experienced the difference.
The McGill study on student engagement provides a current perspective on the alternative environment at Churchill that confirms that "a philosophy is not something that can be seen even though its influences can be felt at multiple levels of affect [italics added]." The draft study report says "the school's philosophy was repeated in several ways that assisted in understanding the alternative belief system (1998:36)."
In his article in The Canadian School Executive (Appendix H), Dr. Lorne Rachlis confirms "what makes them alternative is an understanding by parents, staff and students that the delivery of education is consistent across the school and different from the conventional approach." Alternative schools have routinized many practices that inculcate into the alternative culture- matching new families with more experienced ones, buddy learning for children, initial tours of the school, coffee discussions for kindergarten parents. Such inclusion and access increases the understanding of what is meant to happen and what should occur in the school.
That first-hand experience of the philosophy in action continues to drive alternative communities.
At the same time, the alternative school community acknowledges that it has been a sometimes problematic task to maintain our effectiveness. There are different factors that have over the years contributed to "slippage" in our schools. This has been described forthrightly by the Alternative Schools Advisory Committee itself in discussions at the board. ASAC felt it was key to the continued viability of the program if the board were to set in place clear and precise policies that would acknowledge the right of alternative schools to implement their philosophies and support their efforts to do so. Alternative program adherents, despite the acknowledgement that much more is available to be achieved in the program, continue to believe in the inherent differences and worth of the program. Community support for the program as expressed in strong growth figures for the program, mentioned earlier in this paper, speak to this clearly.
A counterpoint to the "slippage" has been the many innovative practices that continue to be embraced by the alternative program. (Appendix I).
Alternative schools continue to place a large emphasis on anecdotal reporting over graded reports. They continually seek, test and implement new methods of evaluation. One new method is a student-led conference, which has in a short time become a mainstay of evaluation. These conferences feature students evaluating their own progress, illustrating it with work samples and sharing it with their parents. A portfolio developed and maintained by the student is a visible and concrete way of tracking progress and is often used in conjunction with the student-led conference. Reporting interviews at which the teacher, the parents and the student all discuss progress is also standard.
In non-evaluative innovations, the alternative program has pioneered a half-day French-language program at the junior level in one area alternative school, while others have experimented with fewer French-language classes of longer length to both add focus to second-language learning and create flexibility in scheduling.
In another innovation, goal-setting has become an important feature of student life at the junior level. At the beginning of each term, students set achievable personal goals. The goals are evaluated at the end of the term and adjusted, renewed or dropped as closure is achieved.