For many students who do not fit the traditional educational mold, whether as a result of work commitments, family duties, or even identity, alternative schooling options offer a sense of hope. Although uncommon, over the years, innovative schools with unique philosophies have quietly educated generations of graduates worldwide. Notable examples include distance education options, such as Athabasca University, experiential based programs, and those focusing on certain communities.
Athabasca University – Athabasca, Alberta
AU began as a traditional campus-based institution on June 25, 1970, before testing the concept of an open, distance-based university in 1972. By the 1980s, AU incorporated computers to deliver online courses, a practice that continues to this day. Currently, AU provides distance education options for over 40,000 students across the globe.
Las Normales Rurales – Rural Schools – Mexico
Throughout Mexico, these teachers’ colleges focus on educating teachers or normalistas in Mexico’s rural communities. First created in 1917 during the Mexican Revolution as a result of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa’s dreams of education in rural areas, these rural education centres eventually became rural student teacher schools in 1938 under President General Lázaro Cárdenas. Unlike regular schools, education includes political activism, class and social consciousness, working on the land, and leftist viewpoints. Students are often from surrounding Indigenous communities, in Guerrerro and Chiapas. Normales recently gained worldwide prominence, with the September 2014 kidnapping and disappearance of 43 students and death of two from Raul Isidros Burgos Rural Normal College of Ayotzinapa, after clashes with police. The students had travelled to an Iguala rally commemorating the 1968 massacre of students by police in Mexico City.
For many students, AU and Las Normales Rurales represent a break from the traditional educational system; for many others, the desire to continue at an innovative higher-education level often begins during the formative years, in both primary and secondary schools.
Summerhill School – Leiston, England
Founded in 1921, Summerhill School, located in Leiston, England, is based on the revolutionary ideas of A.S. Neill. Focusing on flexibility in curriculum and teaching methods, free self-development of children in an educational setting, where attendance is optional, and both teachers and students self-govern. Today’s Summerhill describes itself as “the oldest children’s democracy in the world” and the “original alternative ‘free’ school.” In his monumental work, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing, Neill states, “Summerhill began as an experimental school” (Neill, 4), but became “a demonstration school, for it demonstrate[d] that freedom works” (Neill, 4). The school gave children the freedom to be themselves, free of discipline, direction, moral training, suggestion, and religious instruction. (Neill, 4). It remains in operation today with about 68 students enrolled, and graduates in all walks of life.
Modern Schools – Spain and the United States
In 1901, anarchist Francisco Ferrer opened his first libertarian and secular-based Escuela Moderna or Modern School in Spain, with many more following in the United States than any other country. Most famous are the longest-running Modern School, which began from 1911 to 1915 in New York City and continued from 1915 to 1953 as the Modern School in the Ferrer Colony, Stelton, New Jersey. Ferrer was executed in 1909.
Freedom Schools – Highlander Folk School – Southern United States
Freedom Schools developed in the Southern United States, as a response to the need for African American equality during the Civil Rights movement. One of the most well-known examples is the 1964 Mississippi Free School Movement, created as a way to provide alternative schooling than the traditional “sharecropper” education being offered. Freedom Schools were modeled on Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School. Founded by Myles Horton, Don West, and Jim Dombrowski in 1932, Highlander Folk School was inspired by Scandinavian folk schools. Originally, begun in Denmark by theologian N.F.S. Grundtvig, folk schools’ aim was to provide its populations with history, religion, and cultural heritage knowledge.
Located in Monteagle, Grundy County, Tennessee, Highlander initially focused on helping the impoverished Appalachian “highlander” populations. During the 1950s and until 1961, the school shifted its focus to civil rights and desegregating public schools. Highlander’s civil rights workshops included attendance by Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. In the late 1950s, under the guidance of Septima Poinsette Clark, Highlander created citizenship schools, which fought for political empowerment and literacy in the black community. Along with Bernice Robinson, Clark’s Citizenship Schools focused on the local community and included adult literacy, voter registration, social security, taxes, and political parties. These eventually spread all over the Southern US.
In 1961, amidst allegations of communism, the Tennessee Supreme Court revoked Highlander’s charter and seized its property. That same year, Highlander Research and Education Centre opened in Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1971, after moving to New Market, Tennessee, the school began interest in anti-globalization efforts, environmental issues, and international peace initiatives. Today, Highlander advocates for social, economic, and political equality.
Free Schools– United States
1960s counterculture, the views of Summerhill’s Neill, as well as other educators, Freedom Schools, and Modern Schools all influenced the Free School Movement of the 1960s to early 1970s. No hierarchal leadership structure existed, students, teachers, and parents ran the schools, emphasis was placed on participatory democracy and strong political views, and the schools were typically small. Although they declined with the 1970s conservatism, Freedom Schools became known as “alternative schools,” and their influence can be seen worldwide, including Canada.
School of Experiential Education (SEE) – Toronto, Ontario
Founded in 1971 by Barry Duncan, a Canadian media literary educator and co-founder of the Association for Media Literacy, School of Experiential Education’s (SEE) Manifesto includes self-discovery, open dialogue, conflict resolution, self- governance, and collaboration. Duncan, a former graduate student of Marshall McLuhan, believed in teaching the deconstruction of media from a young age. He went on to teach English in a variety of settings, including SEE, the University of Toronto, and York University.
“See School” as it is known to former alums, myself included, is nothing if not original. “See is Cool” the rearranged letters above the front entrance proudly greeted students. Our early exposure to diverse topics, such as Existentialism, political thought, Old-English epic poetry, and global history seen from decolonized perspectives. Innovative courses, such as Death and Dying, dealt with the complex process of death in compassionate and critical ways, including field trips to the morgue.
SEE functioned on the principle of egalitarianism; we called our teachers by their first names, our student council was a team effort, our community fridge functioned on an honour system, and we had community meetings on diverse social topics. Most importantly, we learned to think critically, to question everything, and to express empathy and principles of social justice.
Africentric Alternative School – Toronto, Ontario
Africentric Alternative School, Canada’s only Africentric school’s aim is to address issues facing students of African descent from JK to Grade 8 Students learn about Black Canadian history, as well as African contributions to math and science. Principal Luther Brown hopes that students “become truly productive citizens who are proud of themselves, who know who they are, who are not afraid to meet the variety of injustices that will come their way”. The school celebrated its 10 anniversary on September 2019.
The Triangle Program – Toronto, Ontario
As Canada’s only LGBTQ+ school, Toronto’s Triangle Program has continued to provide a safe space for generations of queer students facing bullying in regular high schools. Founded in 1995, the Grades 9 to 12 curriculum teaches students about the queer community’s contributions to literature, science, and history. In 1996, Triangle held the first Pride Prom for queer students and allies.
Kapapamahchakwew – Wandering Spirit School – Toronto, Ontario
Similar to SEE, Africentric, and Triangle, Wandering Spirit School is part of the Toronto District School Board’s nineteen alternative programs. Founded during the 1970s by Pauline Shirt and Vern Harper, Wandering Spirit offers a traditional-based Anishinaabe curriculum from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 11, including Ojibway language courses, and aims to empower students with a strong sense of cultural identity, while being open to all students.
Finland is currently excelling in alternative forms of education. After their fall to the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917 resulted in years of struggle for independence, in 1963 the government invested in education as a form of economic recovery. By 1979, the government had subsided teacher education and salaries were high. In 2000, results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized reading test for 15-year olds, revealed that Finnish students ranked first in the world. In 2003 and 2006, Finland was best in math and science, respectively.
In 2015, Finland introduced “teaching by topic, “or “phenomenon teaching,” as opposed to simply traditional “teaching by subject.” For example, “cafeteria services” includes communication, languages, and math. In addition, cross-topics often merge economics, with history, languages, and geography. In August 2016, phenomenon-based learning (PBL) became compulsory with a focus on a collaborative approach, as opposed to simply listening to the teacher. Teachers also have a great deal of flexibility about how they teach and are not graded on performance. Instead, annual development discussions with school leaders assess the teacher’s analyses of their own strengths and weakness.
Currently, Finland’s schools have no standardized tests, apart from one final exam before graduation, no rankings, and no comparisons between students. Playtime and socializing are encouraged, homework is minimal, and classes are small — about nineteen students. In addition, the state funds most schools. Each school draws from a pool of university-trained teachers, allowing students in all parts of the country access to similar types of education. 93% of teens graduate and 66% continue on to higher level of education. In comparison, the US scores significantly lower, but spends 30% more on education. Marjo Kyllonen, Helsinki’s former education manager stated, “There are schools that are teaching in the old fashioned way which was of benefit in the beginnings of the 1900s – but the needs are not the same and we need something fit for the 21st century.”
Choosing Alternative Forms of Education
Various life events and backgrounds often lead students down the path to non-traditional forms of education, including distance education. For many students, these alternative options are often a lifeline. After SEE, I transitioned back to the traditional educational system, attending York University, before health reasons derailed my dreams. Years later, I resumed my education online at Simon Fraser University, due to a grueling work schedule that involved a great deal of travel. When health struggles flared up once again, my enrollment at AU allowed me to continue my education. I appreciate all my years of non-traditional school; in particular, the time spent at SEE with Dave, Glenn, Gerry, Joe, Karl, and Val—teachers who became friends—continues to resonate so many years later. Endless possibilities exist for students whose have the option to learn in an innovative environment with educators who believe in their potential. Although these schools are not yet the norm, I remain incredibly grateful for the innovators who made today’s alternative schools a reality.