Alternative schools and programs are growing by leaps and bounds across North America, inside as well as outside of the public system. One 2003 Education Evolving study described such programs as the “quiet giant” in the public sector and since September 2009 the Toronto Board of Education has opened more alternative schools than ever before, bringing its total to over 40 different elementary and secondary schools.
Nova Scotia provides a stark contrast. Alternative-education programs here are few and far between and yet the Halifax Regional School Board is on the verge of cutting Youth Pathways and Transitions (YPT), the only Board-wide program serving harder to reach secondary school students.
Treating the YPT as a strictly “temporary transitional program” is bad enough. Presenting the issue as a simple cost-cutting measure further emphasizes how ‘out-of-sync’ the region’s largest public school system has become under the current administration.
Cancelling the YPT program has outraged the students and parents directly impacted, but they have been left twisting in the wind. The Board administration sequestered in Burnside says it will save $652,000 and remains resolute. “Kids not Cuts” may be the Nova Scotia Teacher Union’s latest media message, but where were they when YPT was slated for cancellation? Actions speak louder than those pricey ads.
Cutting alternative programs may save educational dollars short-term, but effectively excludes sizeable numbers of “at risk” students with longer-term social costs, reflected in higher crime rates, increased health care costs, and longer welfare rolls.
The three brave YPT students, Sophie McConnell, Shannon Simpson, and Emma Latta, who have spoken out are typical of thousands of students “saved” each year by alternative high school programs. It’s shameful that it was left to these Halifax students and their parents to stand-up for the hundreds of Nova Scotian students not being well-served in traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ schools.
“Alternative education programs,” according to Education Evolving, have been “highly successful in serving a population of students not served well in traditional settings.” And that essential research finding has been echoed in many recent studies.
Since the founding of the SEED School in Toronto in the mid-1960s, alternative schools in Canada’s larger cities have proven to be hardy plants. In the United States, Minnesota serves as a prime example of their runaway success. By 2003, some 77,000 of the state’s 411,840 Grade 7-12 students attended such programs, fully one-fifth of all students.
Since the mid-1970s, American and Canadian school districts have turned to such schools and programs to close the ‘achievement gap’ and to raise graduation levels. Outside of the Maritimes, it has been part of a concerted two-pronged strategy to create new and different schools as well as to improve existing mainstream schools.
Alternative programs have also proven effective in promoting innovative teaching methods and learning activities. “Alternative program leaders,” one U.S. study noted, “ have much to teach leaders” in regular schools and counterbalance the smothering homogeneity promoted by the overzealous pursuit of standardized testing and accountability.
Since Youth Pathways and Transitions opened in 2004, it has served as a vital safe haven for junior or senior high schoolers who either skipped classes or were suspended for extended periods. To say that YPT has “saved” hundreds of students from the educational scrap heap is no exaggeration.
The Halifax Regional Board has limited the scope of YPT and refuses to accept the need for even one self-standing alternative school. Little or no effort is made to advise parents or students of its existence, unless it becomes a school of last resort. In that sense, the HRSB treats it like a first generation “drop-in” program rather than a fully-evolved innovative, cutting-edge alternative school.
Public education in Nova Scotia, even in HRM, offers a strictly limited range of school options, unlike Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, or Vancouver. In the Toronto District Board, the city’s 37 alternative programs in 2007-08 enrolled 3,583 students or less than 97 students per school. Each had its own unique character, but was specially designed to “fit the student.”
In a school system putting students first, YPT would not be on the chopping block. It would be seen as a potential model for creating uniquely different schools geared to the specialized needs of students and satisfying growing parental expectations for human scale alternatives to “big box” elementary and “airport terminal” high.
Given the proven sucess of alternative schools and programs in serving hard to reach students, why are they still vulnerable to educational cuts? Why do Canadian school districts continue to thwart their growth and expansion? Is it because alternative programs tend to foster an organizational culture more conducive to the development of self-standing alternative schools? What will it take to overcome the barriers to change, particularly in the Maritimes and much of rural Canada?