INTRODUCTION

The Grove Community School started in 2009 with a group of parents who wanted the community ethos of neighbouring Dufferin Grove Park to be reflected in their children’s education. Based on core principles of environmentalism, social justice, and community activism, the Grove is housed in Alexander Muir/Gladstone Avenue Junior and Senior Public School in the west end of Toronto. The Grove starts each day with an all-school Welcoming Circle, and offers an anti-bias, arts-infused curriculum; collaborative assessment; and whole-school multi-age “Grove Gatherings” with themes like Gender Splendour. Ariel Fielding sat down to talk with teachers Velvet Lacasse and Shannon Greene about the challenges of starting a parent-initiated alternative school, the opportunities for creativity within the strictures of the curriculum, and the possibility of finding alternatives to standardized testing.

Ariel: I’ve been thinking about this strange historical moment that we’re in, and the chant you often hear at demonstrations, “This is what democracy looks like!” The basic elements of democracy are being called into question. It seems like human decency comes into question every day. Truth is questioned. It’s a very weird time. In this climate, how do you at the Grove Community School teach kids what you call in your core values, “democratic transformation and social change”?

ShannonShannon: “This is what democracy looks like.” I think that I have always strived in my teaching to listen to kids’ voices, to make sure they have representation and that they’re heard. We’re a small alternative school within a large mainstream public school, so sometimes I struggle in my teaching to hear those really important voices that are not as strong and not as loud. I would say that we suffered depression after the American election. Our community was in shock, and that trickled right down to the young primary students.

VelvetVelvet: I think what’s interesting about the Grove Community School is that it was started by parents. Before any teachers had been hired to work at the school, a group of parents created the handbook and decided on the core values that they wanted to see implemented in the public school system. When we came into the school as educators, it was our role to translate their vision in concrete action. As a teacher who’s been here from the very beginning, I feel like that piece around democracy and transformative democratic practice is still emerging. Like Shannon said, we work really hard to honor student voices, and to make sure that students are involved and engaged in their learning, but there have been real limitations being part of a public institution. We don’t have full freedom in terms of the curriculum content that we teach, but we do have a lot of room to be creative and playful.

One of the ways we are trying to include those democratic values is our commitment to collaborating not just with the students, but also with the families. Alternative elementary schools tend to be very parent-involved, and we have worked very successfully to develop curriculum and whole-school events that we feel reflect the core values. The commitment of staff to collaborating together is also something that feels unique from other schools that I’ve taught in. The ways that we use inquiry-based learning guided by students’ interests and curiosities and needs and feelings—there’s a commitment to center student inquiry. But I feel like we have a long way to go in terms of being a school that’s truly democratic. A lot of our classrooms have meetings where decisions get made together. We were trained in the first two years in using a restorative justice approach called Peace Circles, so the ways we resolve conflict are collaborative. There’s a struggle for us around control and letting go of control; for me, democracy is really about sharing control.

Ariel: Before we started our project on teachers, we did a project on ALPHA Alternative School on its 40th anniversary. That issue came up from a graduate with a background in queer activism. He had a negative opinion of the version of democracy we had at ALPHA when we were kids, and he talked about that issue of teacher control, and the ways in which he didn’t have freedom. So how do you walk that line?

Shannon: When I started here seven years ago, we had more Grove Gatherings and more opportunities to make decisions as a school community. We had something called “Community Unity meetings” As our Board puts more initiatives into place, we have less time to spend discussing issues that come up and making decisions as a full school.

Ariel: What kind of initiatives stand in the way of the school functioning as a democratic community?

Shannon: We have testing in May every year, EQAO [Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office, responsible for standardized testing in the province]. We have administrative proposals for events that are guided by good, equity-based reasons. There’s diagnostic testing at the beginning of the year. There’s end-of-year testing, report cards three times a year. There’s a lot of pressure, and gatherings become less possible when teachers are resisting giving that additional time. We already have events that are structured into our year that show our commitment to our philosophy and our pillars. We have a week that we just finished of Gender Splendour: we collapse our program for a week and break down into multi-age groups, and we offer workshops for primary and junior students. That’s a whole week of instructional time, and some teachers get very stressed out about it.

Velvet: I almost wish that we could eliminate the stress of assessment, because I feel like that’s what drives instruction. If we had a more collaborative or alternative approach to assessment, or if we had more courage as educators to be creative and to value that learning is taking place even though it might look different from what families might expect—if we really value and honour the learning process, and if we’re able to gather qualitative as well as quantitative data about our students and how they learn and what they need, I think that would shift the way people approach alternative education. When the testing is so conservative and traditional, when it’s standardized, it’s harder to trust that the learning that comes from your alternative teaching practice will be reflected in a traditional assessment. That’s an area where alternative schools could lead, by developing something more holistic.

There’s a lot of pressure that we get from administration, that administration gets from the Ministry of Education, that’s crashing down. You almost need as a staff to rise up and push back against all of those pressures, because they do make us hesitate, especially newer teachers and teachers who want to do the right thing; it discourages them from taking those creative risks that we want in this type of environment. It’s been frustrating at times to be teaching in an alternative school without feeling like you have full freedom to be alternative. A lot of that is because of assessment.

Ariel: Is your funding dependent on assessment?

Shannon: We follow the Ontario Curriculum, and all of our testing is geared to how many kids are meeting the expectations. I don’t know if it’s connected to funding, but it certainly connects to everything else in Toronto. Real estate values—people shop around for homes in school districts that have a high EQAO. The mainstream school we’re housed in is a model school, and I don’t know what their learning index number is, but at one point it was very low, so tons of money went into resources and instructional coaches, and they boosted their EQAO, so next year it will no longer be a model school. Their funding will be gone.

Velvet: The funding formula is based on how many students you have in a school. That’s where alternative schools really struggle, because we are smaller schools. We have fewer financial resources, so that has an impact in terms of staffing allocation. But test scores at this point aren’t impacting our school budget.

Ariel: Let’s say you can’t get away from testing altogether. Would it be imaginable for alternative schools to get together and devise their own tests?

Velvet: We’ve tried to reach out to other alternative schools, because I think it’s important that we build relationships, and recognize the ways that we are unique, and I think that if we can advocate as a strong community, that would be more effective than each school trying to ask for what they need. What I’ve learned about alternative school educators is that they work really hard. It’s been challenging to find time to meet outside of all of our extra commitments in order to mobilize. Whenever I’m at a gathering, a union gathering for example, the alternative school educators will find each other and squirrel off in a corner and check in. There are some commonalities between us, and there are a lot of differences. I think what’s missing is that collective voice that understands what our needs are and is able to advocate.

For example, up until a few years ago, alternative schools didn’t have any access to special education support. We all have students in our schools who are working well above or below grade level. That was a real issue of equity. We had families pushing, and that was eventually changed. We still don’t have nearly enough special education support, and I think that’s true across the Board, but that was an area where alternative schools were almost being penalized, not being able to access support for their students. As a result of collective action, that was changed. Right now a few of the alternative schools are working together around equity admissions and increasing the diversity of our families. One thing that tends to be true of most alternative schools in the city is that our parent community is very privileged, very progressive, often white and entitled, English-speaking. There’s a demographic of alternative school families, and we are actively thinking about how we reach out to more communities.

The conversation about assessment hasn’t come up frequently, but it’s an important one to have. Moving forward, if you’re going to create an alternative school, you need to give alternative school educators freedom to be creative and alternative, not only their pedagogy but their assessment. An alternative report card, alternative testing, or we’ve been experimenting with collaborative assessment and student-led conferences and portfolios—more support around developing those skills and resources would be most welcome.

Shannon: When I taught at Downtown Alternative School, the school’s identity was in crisis. More than half of the community was there because it was small. There wasn’t much pride or sense of ownership. It was difficult to find shared values. At the Grove, I’m seeing that every couple of years it’s really important for the school to review its values and make sure it checks in with its community because it changes, it evolves. Alternative schools are all so different; they’re there for different reasons. Our school is so new that we have so much more energy, on some level, than other alternative schools. But I am very curious about the other alternative schools that opened when the Grove opened.

Velvet: Africentric, DaVinci, and Equinox. Some have been more successful than others. It would be interesting to create some criteria about what makes an alternative school successful. Talking to these newer schools about what has supported them, and also what the challenges have been, can be very revealing. Shannon was talking about the focus and commitment we have to our core values, and how other alternative schools, especially those that have been around for years, struggle to hold on to their values or find clarity around them. One of the things I’ve been thinking about this year is, who is holding us accountable to those values? Is it the parent community? We have our first graduating class, which includes the first kids to come to the school when it started nine years ago. We’re going to be losing a lot of our founding parents. The core values of the school are being driven by the energy that Shannon and I bring here. If we were not at the school, it would be a very different place. Is it the role of the administrator to hold educators accountable, and what happens when you have teachers who have different understandings about what to put at the centre of your curriculum? How do we facilitate those conflicts or conversations? I feel like those are opportunities for alternative schools to come together and ask, “How have you handled this in the past?” Especially if you have new staff coming in who don’t bring the same history, having a really clearly articulated vision is important.

Shannon: There’s such a strict hiring procedure in our school board that we end up hiring teachers who are not here because they want to be at an alternative school. If we had an exemption, and we could hire teachers from a different pool, it might change the dynamics and it might actually be a really positive force, because we have such a small staff.

Velvet: That would be interesting, because if you did create a pool, what would be the criteria for an alternative educator? Who would put their name in that pool?

Shannon: I think it’s really important to have experience. The parents are so demanding. When we have our conferences, the regular fifteen minutes, any teacher who thinks they’re going to follow that template is fooling themselves. On average each teacher gets hundreds of emails a week. You have to have office hours, otherwise there’s no respect for boundaries.

Velvet: And I think that level of experience would also allow you to take risks in terms of curriculum. Because if you have the experience and you know the curriculum inside out, then it’s a lot easier to to be able to say, “I know I’ve met the expectations of the curriculum, and I did it in this integrated or holistic way.” An experienced teacher who’s worked with the curriculum is able to be innovative. You trust yourself.

Ariel: Something I wonder about is whether equity would be part of that hiring practice, so you could get more teachers of color into the alternative system.

Velvet: I think it’s a really important issue for us to talk about and explore. One thing that’s happening with alternative schools is that they’re becoming a sort of two-tiered educational system. You have all these privileged families that are being pulled out of the mainstream public system who are no longer advocating for the larger public school community, and I think that does a disservice to all of our students. That’s the part of alternative school education that I feel most uncomfortable with. I don’t want to be part of a system that’s reinforcing this dynamic where some kids are privileged over other kids. The only way I can wrap my head around that is by making the curriculum very much focused on discussing issues of equity and social justice and power and privilege. If we’re going to have classrooms with entitled white students, then we need those students to have a really sharp analysis of their privilege and social location. We need to give them tools to recognize and confront injustice, and break this cycle that continues to privilege the white families that we’re teaching. That’s a real issue for alternative schools, and it’s a hard one to swallow without being critical.

Ariel: It’s not a new issue at all. Many of the alternative school parents I knew as a child had chosen to more or less opt out of class and the privileges that came with it. They had wonderful utopian impulses that made a difference in the world, but what’s clear in hindsight is that rejecting class was only possible with privilege. Then, as now, privilege allowed conscious white middle-class-born people some leeway in how actively they rejected various kinds of oppression. Even so, the early teachers and families at ALPHA laid the groundwork for a school that is now more fully reflective than ever before of the cultural diversity of Toronto.

Let’s step back and talk about how the Grove got started. You have a lot of neat stuff going on. The phrase that comes to mind is ‘ALPHA 2.0.’ The founders of ALPHA were very progressive and very intentional; you can see it in their founding document, which is posted on the school’s website. If ALPHA were started now, in terms of its core values I imagine it might look something like the Grove.

Velvet: [laughing] I have a lot of respect for the communities that created ALPHA and for the educators there.

Ariel: Me too. I love ALPHA, and I’m not criticizing my school at all; I’m saying it came out of a very specific and exciting historical moment more than forty years ago, just as the Grove is also a product of its time. General awareness of the workings of race, gender, and class was a little more evolved when the Grove started in 2008 than when ALPHA began in 1972. It is kind of interesting, though, that the same issues exist at the Grove around the initial predominant whiteness of the school population.

Shannon: For the parents who started the Grove, Dufferin Grove Park [next door to the school] was a common gathering point. The success of that park has been widely studied. It’s a beautiful communal space, a safe space. People were moving to this neighbourhood and wanted to feel like that communal space was part of their kids’ schooling.

Velvet: I have some very close friends who were part of that process. I was very curious about the school, and I knew that I wanted to teach here. These parents wanted it all. The first version of our handbook included all of their hopes and their dreams and high expectations. Very few of the parents who created the school were educators, so they didn’t anticipate some of the challenges we were going to have as a public institution trying to implement this vision. When we started, we opened with three-and-a-half teachers. The parent community was small but very intense. They were very invested in the school and they were watching us like a hawk.

There were some parents who turned around on the first day and walked out because they were expecting ALPHA. They wanted a free democratic school, and we started the school year with structure, with ideas about curriculum and roles we were going to play. We had some parents who were very offended by even the act of lining the students up in the hallway before they entered the classroom. The parents were passionate. They were really brilliant. I learned a lot in collaboration with these parents, in trying to understand what it was they were hoping for. One of the biggest barriers we had when we opened our school was our administrator, who had not been part of the planning process. Her philosophy, her politics were very different from the parent community. There was this instant clash between parents, administration, and educators who were just trying to figure it out. We were reaching for a map to help us navigate. One of the parents offered us the book Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, which became an important framework for us. We started creating whole-school routines and rhythms that helped to structure our school year, and some of those are still very present. We just started to imagine what the curriculum could look like if you put the core values at the centre. But the handbook is extensive, and we haven’t been able to meet all of the expectations. It challenges us. It inspires us. It can be exhausting. We can never be everything that parents had hoped for or wanted us to be. The school had approval from the Board, but then we had these very real barriers—

Shannon: Like personalities.

Velvet: Yeah.

Shannon: Like a whole community that wasn’t comfortable with an alternative school sharing their mainstream school building.

Velvet: Right. That was tense.

Shannon: It was difficult to foresee all of that stuff, and then there were parents immediately not getting along. Right away there were divisions in the community, and those divisions worked their way into the classroom and to the administrator. The turnover of administration changed the feeling of the school. The climate changed drastically. There were more opportunities to collaborate and share. Staff has changed too. It’s been very challenging especially for young staff. Some of our former staff will probably never go into another alternative school in their career because it was so stressful.

Velvet: I think two things were really important for us at the beginning of the Grove. One was that we needed to develop a process for collaboration. How were we going to work together? How were we going to make decisions? All of those things we created ourselves. We didn’t have a parent council, we didn’t have guidelines. We created documents for how we were going to collaborate. The other thing is, we didn’t trust each other at the beginning, and that’s where a lot of the conflict came. Things got easier when people started to trust us. But it’s true, we’ve had a number of teachers who have left the school with really unpleasant memories of working with our community.

Shannon: They had a different vision. Also, just to plan the planning meetings with parents took hours. The meetings didn’t necessarily amount to much, because, again, parents are not educators. Their visions are sometimes not attainable. But it’s great that they support us, so when we do need them, they’re always there.

Velvet: Those planning meetings were part of the commitment to collaboration and being a community school. We were trying to make that process transparent, democratic, give parents voices. But it’s true, it was a lot of extra work for us as teachers. It would be interesting to talk to schools like Equinox, which was started by educators. If you start with a group of educators with a sense of what the possibilities and limitations are within a public institution, you would be starting from a different place. That has been part of our learning curve, but I think we have been really successful in coming up with concrete examples of what these core values can look like in the school. I’m really proud of that work that we’ve done together.

Shannon: Yeah. The actions that we’ve done as a team, and sometimes as two classes collaborating, are what the students remember. We now have a couple of years of graduates we see and hear from. It sounds like those moments in the kids’ experience of the Grove made a big difference. I’d love to hear more from them, to get some sort of formal survey from graduates.

Ariel: You’re talking about the Grove Gatherings?

Shannon: Sort of. The Grove Gatherings were ways we could get together and share a theme-based unit, for example on Work, on Weaving—

Velvet: The Grove Gatherings were about bringing the school together in multi-age groupings. When we were small, it was every Friday. Then it was every other Friday, and then it became several times a year. They’re times when students are learning from and with each other. They look very different now, because our school has grown to 130 students. Gender Splendour Week is an example. When we create multi-age groupings, we have eight large groups. The logistics are intense. We do it for Peace Week, we do it every year for the Earth Festival in the park, we do it for Gender Splendour. I really believe in multi-age groupings, and I would do them more, but it does require a lot of collaboration, and a shared commitment from everybody involved.

Ariel: At ALPHA we had that, but it was much more informal. The whole school was together as a community every afternoon, often going swimming or to gym or on field trips. You were talking about what kids remember; that’s what I remember best. The relationships between older and younger kids when the whole school was together were super important. They involved a lot of mentoring and learning. But we usually had about fifty students in the whole school, so it would have been more manageable than what you’re describing.

Velvet: We don’t have many alternative schools anymore with multi-age classrooms. Some alternative schools like Mountview, for example, had a 4-5-6 and a JK-SK-Grade 1, but that’s rare. I think ALPHA was unique in that way. We do have split grades, and we try to partner our classes together, but that’s dependent on the teachers. I agree that multi-age groupings can be very powerful for all students.

Shannon: I noticed at my son’s school when he was in primary that the junior students couldn’t relate to the primaries, almost like they didn’t want anything to do with them. It really bothered me, because I remember at another school I taught at how important Reading Buddies was to my junior students. It bothered me that he as a primary student looking up to those older students, that they didn’t acknowledge them. Here it’s so different. They know each other so well, and we rely on them to calm each other down.

Velvet: One of the places where we come together as a school community is Welcoming Circle every morning. Every morning we start our day in a giant circle out in the field: parents, students, educators, special guests—

Shannon: Dogs

Velvet: Dogs. And that’s a real opportunity for us to share our learning, to connect, to build relationships. It’s a time where we share announcements. We use a microphone now because there are so many of us, and we want to support everyone to listen. Younger students will make announcements about their wiggly teeth, or a playdate that’s coming up. Today we had a Grade 6 student read a poem that he wrote with Shannon last week in Gender Splendour. It also allows us to acknowledge world events, holidays, days of significance. The way that we begin our day is with an acknowledgement of the traditional lands that we’re standing on. For me that has become a really important way for us to begin our day together, and to disrupt that narrative of being complicit in this system that plays the national anthem without challenging it. We start with our acknowledgement, and we found a version of the anthem that is very inclusive. It’s a trio of singers, First Nations and Métis women from Winnipeg who sing in English, French, and Cree. I hope those two very simple daily acts will be kept and remembered by our community, and will also encourage students to think, as they move into other spaces, about how we acknowledge our relationship to the land and to each other, and to these stories that we tell. Circle is a place where that happens.

Shannon: Last year, one of the graduates leaving mentioned it in her speech, and it surprised me, because by Grade 6, sometimes they remove themselves a little bit, they don’t engage in Circle as much. I forget how powerful it is, because we do it every single day. Sometimes it’s a hassle, and sometimes it’s raining, and we do it anyway. It’s a symbolic way to recognize everyone in the community.

Velvet: It’s very grounding, too. Today, when it was raining, the energy was kind of challenging. I found that coming together and starting our day like that really grounded us.

Ariel: It’s a really neat idea. Your whole curriculum is super interesting to me. Gender Splendour is a fantastic title. [Shannon and Velvet exchange a high five.]

Shannon: Gender Splendour is always something we come back to when we have our meetings with administration. Even the first administration, that was the one thing they actually listened to. It’s something that families have come to our school for, families that push the binary or have experienced transphobia or queer phobia or any other bias. It’s something our students look forward to. We’re so proud of it, and I’m so thankful for Velvet. She was relentless. I had an idea, a vision, and she pushed until we had a group of parents who helped. It’s not easy, but it’s been a big success.

Gender Splendour is gender education on an age-appropriate level. It’s a celebration. We have a population of students who are empowered with this incredibly strong curriculum. We have advocates who can travel out to the world.

Velvet: One of the things I love about Gender Splendour Week is that it’s so much fun. We dress up every day in different ways. On Friday we were wearing bow ties and boas in solidarity with the Trans community. We wore glitter and glam one day. We’ve worn capes and wings. We use the arts to teach our curriculum, so there are a lot of opportunities to create. This year kids were painting Pride flags, which was important because we’d just lost Gilbert Baker, [creator of] the Pride flag. We have designed dresses and gender-neutral clothing. We used Drama this year to explore ideas about what it means to be feminine or masculine. We’ve used music every year, very successfully, and we’ve found some great songs. We dance, we celebrate, and it also allows us to talk about the experiences of feeling silenced and not seeing ourselves or our stories reflected in the dominant story. We talk about homophobia, we talk about transphobia, about silence and the impact that it’s had. We want to highlight stories of resistance and empower students to become agents of change. We write letters to government officials. Last year we tweeted. We incorporate action as part of our learning, because we want to make our students feel like they can make a change. It’s a way we honour our own story, as well as honouring the stories of our students and our families.

When they do leave the Grove, we hope that they’ll be kind, we hope that they’ll have empathy and understanding, and we hope that they’ll stand up for each other. It is a curriculum we want to share with other people, and we have reached out to other alternative schools, and alternative schools are also reaching back, so there’s a sharing that’s starting, where we’re inviting each other to events to celebrate the learning that’s happening. There are amazing things happening in all of our schools; we just need to find ways to share them with each other. Your project is a part of that, so thank you for documenting and collecting these stories for us. I look forward to reading all of them.

Shannon: Gender Splendour to me is a model of anti-bias curriculum that any school can do if they have a few teachers who are willing to put into the effort.

Velvet: There’s so much more to do. It’s really exciting. I feel really clear why I want to teach at an alternative school: it’s to explore alternative pedagogy. I think it’s in those moments where I’m not able to do that that I feel the most frustrated. If I’m not able to be as alternative as I want, then I may as well be in a mainstream system and do this work, because it’ll be more subversive. If you focus on this school as a model or a lab, an opportunity to take risks and develop curriculum, and then take that curriculum out of this school, then I feel like it’s worth it.

The Grove

Interviewed on Apr. 19, 2017