The rallying cry of so much reactionary thought in politics and education is, of course, “But this is the way we have always done it.” This is seldom true. So much of our modern systems emerged from the paradigm shift that was the Industrial Revolution. Nowadays, of course, you have the tech bros at the opposite end of the spectrum claiming that their innovation is the next paradigm shift, that crypt or “AI” or whatever will prompt a dramatic reorganization of society. Maybe, but I doubt it. In any event, the trick, as it usually is with these things, is to figure out the way forward between those two extremes. Too much change all the time is chaotic and unworkable. But to insist that we can never change up a system, even when we readily admit its flaws, is unethical. In Can this be School?: Fifty years of democracy at ALPHA, Deb O’Rourke chronicles the history of a prominent alternative school in Toronto. ALPHA is an exemplar—for those crying “we have always done it this way,” ALPHA’s half-century of operation belies their implicit claim that alternative schools are new or a fad. O’Rourke believes ALPHA offers lessons learned for any other school boards or communities seeking to rethink mass education. The author and publisher provided me with a review copy.
Told roughly chronologically, this book presents eighteen chapters of history, quotations from interviews with former students and parents, and meticulous research that documents not only ALPHA’s genesis but the political and cultural forces at work in Toronto in the sixties and seventies that allowed for that genesis in the first place. This is sourced and structured like a thesis (which it was originally), though it has a more personal and admiring tone than a thesis might have—O’Rourke was a parent and employee of ALPHA for a time and obviously believes in the school’s mission. That being said, she freely catalogs the school’s failures as well as its successes—though it’s worth noting that even the idea of categorizing such things into failure and success is suspect if the framework we are using is the one established by over a century of mass schooling.
I come to this book as somewhat of an alternative educator with over ten years (cannot believe I can write that) of teaching experience. Trained here in Canada, I taught in England for the first two years of my career before returning home. Then I was hired at the adult high school. It’s on the opposite end of the age spectrum from ALPHA but otherwise is very similar: part of our school board yet unlike the other high schools, always slightly misunderstood by other stakeholders in the education system. Indeed, the concerted effort not to discuss alternative education in our media and everyday conversation is, when you pause to think about it, rather astounding. If it is mentioned, it is almost always in the context of critical discussions about homeschooling. Every few years you get a “gee, whiz” article about an alternative school like an Africentric one, or a school established by a First Nation—almost always acting as if this is a brand-new phenomenon rather than the latest instance in a long line of resistance. Nobody talks about adult education that is not post-secondary, and few people outside of education talk about alternative schools.
In spite of my longstanding involvement in alternative education, it should give you an idea of how vast the province of Ontario is that here in Thunder Bay I had never heard of ALPHA down in Toronto. Thus, I went into this book expecting to be sympathetic to the concept but also skeptical. Given its longevity and the glowing reviews it receives from former students and parents, why has ALPHA’s success not been replicated more? Why does it persist when other efforts have failed? Or is it too good to be true, and will I have to read between O’Rourke’s lines to discover the sinister conspiracy afoot to mould young minds into radical progressives bent on establishing a new world order? (OK, probably not that last one.)
A few running themes emerge over the course of the book: the importance of parental involvement and commitment, the impossibility of being everything to everyone, and the challenges of maintaining true independence and alternative ideals in a system not designed for them.
ALPHA’s successes and failures correlated quite a bit with its ability to involve parents in the day-to-day running of the school. O’Rourke chronicles the value found in Meeting, an all-hands affair at the end of each school day attended by parents but coordinated by the students. When ALPHA lost its ability to do full-day kindergarten, it was a blow to Meeting because parents who might otherwise be picking up their youngest ones would have trouble attending. In a school where freedom of activity for students is such a big part of its DNA, having enough volunteers to supervise and assist, when necessary, is huge.
This has opened up ALPHA and other alternative schools in its vein to accusations of elitism, something O’Rourke addresses here. It’s true that ALPHA’s model specifically works best for middle-class families whose parents have the flexibility to volunteer in some way. It’s also true that ALPHA had, for a time, difficulty attracting nonwhite students and families. I appreciate O’Rourke’s willingness to engage with these shortcomings and discuss them honestly, for I think it can be damaging to alternative schooling movements—especially progressive ones—to make antiracism an afterthought in their missions. O’Rourke documents how ALPHA has, over the decades, sought to improve its admissions process and otherwise expand. At the same time, she also emphasizes that ALPHA is not the be all end all of alternative schooling.
That’s an important point that I often think gets lost in these discussions of reforming or revolutionizing education. The whole point is to get rid of mass education in favour of something that I would argue is more compassionate (holistic is another good, albeit somewhat loaded, term). Different communities are going to have different needs and desires; a single model (especially one predicated on Eurocentric ideals and ideas of intelligence and learning) cannot satisfy all of them.
These models prove themselves time and again. Yet the proliferation of alternative schools within the Toronto District School Board at the same time that they tend to fly under the radar of the public’s awareness attests to the disconnect and discomfort that even the board itself has with these models. O’Rourke looks at this through her own memories as a young radical and the writings of her contemporaries, along with documentation from school board meetings, reports, etc. As a younger teacher, I found this recounting invaluable. I grew up during the Mike Harris government of the nineties. As Ford’s government recapitulates, quite literally, the neoliberal “back to basics” model that Harris and Snobelen introduced when I was a child, Can this be School? feels more and more relevant to the here and now. These battles in education are cyclical, each generation fighting the same fight, gaining or giving ground as economic and cultural pressures allow. Consequently, it is vital that we do not forget our history so that we can learn from our successes and avoid repeating the mistakes from the previous cycle.
In this sense, Can this be school? succeeds. It is not quite a blueprint nor is it quite an oral history, but it has elements of both. It doesn’t quite offer a structural analysis of what else, outside of education, in our society must change to make alternative schooling more palatable and practical on a larger scale. However, what it does offer is detail and salient analysis of a single alternative school in the context of the larger alternative-schooling movement. ALPHA is not the only way to do alternative school; nevertheless, I would say this book goes on the required reading list for alternative schooling. I found it reassuring—so much of what O’Rourke describes of ALPHA is present, albeit in more adult-friendly forms, in my praxis, so there was a little preening happening as I read this on my deck. I also found it galvanizing. I can’t speak to how a parent or interested party who isn’t a teacher would find it, but for teachers less familiar with alternative education, I think this book is a good place to start. It’s up to date, complete, and careful to acknowledge that this could be school—but the choice is ultimately up to the communities a school will serve.