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Should I send my child to an alternative school?

Are specialized schools worth it?
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Mark Moyes, September 26, 2013 11:05:25 AM

Dear Reader,

This summer, the Equinox Holistic Alternative School ran a successful Indiegogo campaign to fund the construction of a new classroom. What they are building is a little different, though: The $25,000 they raised is going to be used to tear up the concrete under its students’ feet and plant grass and plants in its place.

That’s because Equinox Holistic Alternative School runs Canada’s first outdoor public kindergarten. Unlike at other schools, kids do their learning outside, regardless of the weather. Even in winter.

Related: Why don’t school buses have seatbelts?

The school is part of the Toronto District School Board, and follows the Ontario curriculum, including the requirements for literacy and math. But in the outdoor classroom, math is taught by adding the birds in a tree; for literacy, kids make letters out of sticks.

It’s not the only preschool in Canada with a focus on outdoor learning. There’s the Guelph Outdoor Preschool, the Nature Kindergarten in B.C., the Carp Ridge Forest Preschool and Kindergarten… the list goes on.

In fact, there are probably more specialized education options in Canada than you’d expect. The Toronto District School Board alone lists nineteen alternative elementary schools and twenty-two alternative secondary schools. These include the previously mentioned Equinox Holistic Alternative School, but also schools with other focuses: The Africentric Alternative School, which teaches the provincially mandated curriculum through the context of African culture and history, and currently has 190 students; the Delphi Secondary Alternative School, which emphasizes Problem-Based Learning, the teaching method used at Harvard Business School and McMaster University’s Medical School; the Overflow Center, which serves at-risk youth; and the School of Life Experience, which allows students in grade 10 to 12 to bring their children to class if they are parents.

Related: Teen delivers 500 backpacks to a school in need

And then there are the schools that aren’t considered ‘alternative’: High Schools that focus on arts or music; or, on the other end of the spectrum, the Bill Crothers Secondary School of Healthy Active Living and Sport. (Finally, a place for all the marginalized jocks.) There are religious schools–in many areas, Catholic schools have their own school board. There are military schools, ESL schools, schools geared towards children with autism, french language schools, and schools that emphasize First Nations’ cultures. There are even vocational schools.

The takeaway here is that there are really a lot of options.

However, not all schools are created equal. For one thing, dispel any prejudices you may have against alternative curriculums. Alternative schools like those in Ontario and charter schools in Alberta are government funded–which means they’re tuition-free–and have a provincially-approved curriculum. And if you’re worried that the cultural, philosophical or religious focus of a specialized school is going to take away from other students’ learning of other subjects, consider this: In most areas of Ontario, Catholic schools perform as well or better than the public schools. Similarly, almost 75% of grade three students at the Africentric Alternative School score above the provincial standard in reading, writing and mathematics.

On the other hand, private schools charge tuition, and people often assume that pricier means better. And sure, it may mean smaller class sizes and facilities, and it may mean the schools are able to attract better teachers with higher pay. But that’s not always the case. It’s important to note that private schools may not be regulated, accredited or overseen by the province. That means it’s up to you to check whether they follow the provincial curriculum and hire teachers who are qualified. (In B.C., all teachers are certified, and independent schools may or may not be funded, but in Ontario, they’re not. Again: check your province.)

But before you give up on public schools, you should know that Canada’s, at least, are good. Really good. Out of 65 countries, our fifteen-year-olds score fifth in reading, seventh in science, and ninth in math. Canadian students score better than those from Norway, Germany and Britain.

And separating students based on interest or ability may not be such a good idea anyway. A report by the Canadian Education Association and Ontario Institute in Studies in Education on streaming–the practice of grouping students by ability–concludes that streaming can compound initial learning problems, and has no significant overall benefit in science or mathematics. But what the report really concludes is this: Good instruction gives the best results.

If your child wants to be the next Mozart, there’s a good chance they’ll find better instruction at a specialized arts school. On the other hand, everyone learns differently: Some children thrive in the traditional public school system; others do not.

So research your school–whether public, private, alternative, charter, or otherwise–and if you can, meet its teachers. Better yet, have your child meet its teachers.

After all, yes: everyone learns differently. But everyone teaches differently too.

Photo courtesy of paraflyer on Flickr.

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