Alpha Alternative School, one of the oldest alternative schools in Canada, recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. It seemed like a good time to take a look at the lives of some of its earliest students, in order to get a sense of the long-term effects of this radical experiment in cooperative education. ALPHA—A Lot of Parents Hoping for an Alternative—was unique in the Toronto public school system when it was founded in 1972. There was no homework, no grades, and no tests. It was taken for granted that children do much of their learning through play. Students explored their own interests, beginning organically with something they wanted to learn about or something they wanted to make or do, and enlisting the support of their teachers and friends in finding the answers to their questions. In addition to daily one-on-one or small-group lessons in reading, writing, math, and French, an ALPHA student in the 1970s could learn to take photographs with a pinhole camera and develop them in an onsite darkroom; build a kid-size wooden fort; make stop-motion animated films; construct giant painted sculptures out of snow; incubate an egg and raise the resulting chicken; buy and care for tropical fish; research and write essays on art history, and on and on.

A typical day at ALPHA started with quiet work in the mornings, with students separated into two broad groups by age. From lunchtime onward, the entire school functioned as one, with older students serving as mentors and role models to younger ones. Afternoons were taken up with special projects, field trips, play, swimming, or gym, followed by a collective cleanup of the school. Each day ended with an all-school meeting, led by two students on a rotating basis: a chairperson, who ensured that those who had something to say got a chance to speak, and a ‘separator’ or ‘shutter-upper,’ who kept order. Meetings were where students raised and discussed issues of importance to them, or made announcements, or proposed and voted on school rules. Children as young as four years old could learn to be active participants in this process. There was also a school judicial system, the Committee, where students could address grievances against other students (and, in theory, teachers) before a rotating jury of their peers, empowered to determine guilt or innocence and impose appropriate penalties. As a cooperative organization, ALPHA depended on every parent volunteering for regular shifts; this had the benefit of exposing students to adults with a wide range of skills, from microbiology and higher mathematics to painting and sculpture. Students called both parents and teachers by their first names. While the school was not immune to problems common to schools everywhere—bullying being one example—there was for the most part a climate of openness, curiosity, respect, and acceptance that would have been unusual in a mainstream school at the time, and would be difficult to find outside of a free school even today. ALPHA was a glorious countercultural experiment devised in an age of hopeful ingenuity and fuelled by a desire for freedom. Remarkably, in spite of the many changes that have taken place in the world since ALPHA’s founding forty years ago, the school is still here, not just surviving, but thriving.
— Ariel Fielding

A word on what this project is and how it came about:

ALPHA’s 40th anniversary was coming up, and I was helping to organize a big reunion. I tracked down former students, invited them to the reunion celebrations, and worked on engaging them in the anniversary through social media, especially by posting archival photographs on Facebook. Michael was one of those students; with his interest in environmental portraiture, he knew right away that he wanted to take portraits of his peers during the reunion. Meanwhile, aware of current parents’ concerns about whether alternative education was the best choice for their children, I had been incubating the idea of interviewing ALPHA graduates about what they did after leaving the school and how free schooling had influenced their lives.

Michael and I, who had not been in contact for almost thirty years, had been peers but not friends—though we had both been best friends with portrait subject Maggie Garrard at different times. Although we had never worked together before, we started to talk about doing a project to mark the school’s anniversary, and this is what we came up with: black and white childhood portraits taken by F. Robert Openshaw in 1978 juxtaposed with present day colour portraits by Michael, and contextualized by portraits in words contributed by the subjects and shaped by Ariel. We tried to track down negatives or prints of the Openshaw photographs with the help of photographer and ALPHA parent Laura Jones, but in the end all we had to work with were contact sheets, supplied by portrait subject—and Laura’s son—Morgan Jones-Phillips. Bob Openshaw, now based in California, very kindly gave us permission to use these images.

This is not a research study; it’s more like an ethnographic art project or a personal history. It was not commissioned by ALPHA, nor was it conceived with any particular agenda in mind, except to present portraits of some interesting people with a common educational background. I chose the subjects based on who was coming to the reunion, and who expressed interest. I was looking for gender balance and a range of occupations and pursuits. If ALPHA had been a more culturally diverse place in the 1970s, I would have reflected that, too. One of the positive changes that has taken place at ALPHA is that it is now a more diverse community than it used to be, in any number of ways.
— Ariel Fielding

Cover photo:
Alpha Alternative School (circa 1979), Photographer unknown
Photographs by
Michael Barker and F. Robert Openshaw
Text and Interviews by
Ariel Fielding