British Columbia

No grades, no curriculum: Parents lobby for 'democratic' school in Vancouver

An alternative school program that forgoes a set curriculum to let students learn whatever they want, at their own pace, may find a home in Vancouver. 

Parents of former Windsor House school in North Vancouver want a replacement

Experts say democratic schools have strong educational outcomes, but they aren't the right fit for parents and students focused on grades and credentials. (Shutterstock)

Sophia-Joe Lunny had the kind of high school experience in North Vancouver that would make some parents cringe. 

Lunny had no set schedule. Instead, he decided how to spend his days and what he chose to study.

"It was like an open book," said Lunny, who is now 21 and studies geography at the University of British Columbia. "My day was usually pretty dynamic and fluid." 

In the mornings Lunny often chose to start with math. When that subject felt too tedious he would set it aside for a few weeks until he felt like taking it up again. 

Lunny's real passion was philosophy which he mostly studied independently with guidance from a teacher. 

Sophia-Joe Lunny first attended Windsor House in Grade 7 and stayed until he graduated. He now studies at the University of British Columbia. (Sophia-Joe Lunny)

Other times he spent with friends participating in role-playing games, writing workshops or reading groups based on personal interests. 

Lunny says his experience at Windsor House gave him an "insane advantage" at university because he's used to independent learning, is self-motivated and has good relationships with his teachers.

Potential Vancouver program

Lunny's experience was fairly typical for students at Windsor House, a now-defunct "democratic" public school on the North Shore, which closed its doors for the last time in June.

Democratic schools vary, but most operate on the principle that students learn whatever they want, at their own pace. Students are considered equals with teachers and staff and participate in decisions around how the school is run. 

Teachers give grades, to comply with provincial rules, but parents sign a waiver promising not to ask about them so students aren't pitted against each other. Students only see their grades if they need them to go on to formal schooling.

After Windsor House shut down, former parents at the school approached the Vancouver School Board to see if the program might work there.

The VSB is now looking into that possibility — it recently issued a request for a feasibility study on including a K-12 democratic school as part of its "choice" programs.

Some education experts, like University of British Columbia professor E. Wayne Ross, say research suggests that student-led programs have stronger educational outcomes than regular school programs.

"Anytime you have a situation where the focus is on the students themselves as learners, that is a more productive educational experience than thinking of the students as vessels that need to be filled with information," Ross said. 

Students who completed the program were more able to advocate for themselves, Ross says, and were better critical thinkers. 

Nurturing curiosity

Ross says democratic schools have a long history in North America dating back to the late 18th century. 

More recently, many of them popped up during the counterculture era of the '60s and '70s. The Albany Free School in New York, which still exists today, is one of them, as is the Peninsula School in Palo Alto, Calif. In Toronto, there is the Alpha School. 

"The work of the teacher is basically to try to help and support and nurture the curiosities that students have, and for them to explore them in whatever way they want to do," Ross said.

At Windsor House, that meant a lot of play-based learning for younger children.

Sophia-Joe Lunny recently spent a semester in Haida Gwaii as part of his undergraduate degree at UBC. Lunny credits his education at Windsor House, a now-defunct 'democratic' school in North Vancouver, for his current academic success. (Sophia-Joe Lunny)

For example, Meghan Carrico, the school's former principal, says the school had a "pet store" game that helped students gain numeracy and literacy skills by selling items at the store and making signs. 

Many of the older students naturally transitioned to taking more formal classes, Carrico says, and eventually transferred to mainstream high school to challenge themselves academically and have an active social life.

"They want to, frankly, go to a school that has hundreds of people who they might want to date," she said.

Pursuing personal interests

Ross admits that democratic schools are not a popular option.

He thinks that's because many parents place more importance on earning credentials than fostering curiosity and learning.

Carrico says Windsor house wasn't a good fit for parents focused on how their children fared in comparison to their peers.

"For parents for whom that is the primary concern, mainstream school does a pretty great job of that," Carrico said. 

Still, she thinks a democratic school would get enough student enrolment to succeed in Vancouver.

Most of Windsor House's 200 elementary and high school students were Vancouver residents, Carrico says, and the school had a wait list for the past three years. 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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