Though educators remain divided over whether they close or widen the learning gap between students, more alternative schools will be added to the Toronto District School Board this year than in any year since the city's amalgamation.
Four alternative schools will open their doors this week, bringing the tally to 41.
"To be perfectly candid as a trustee in a ward that doesn't have any alternative schools, I'm very happy the degree of education that we give in schools that are not alternative," said TDSC chair John Cambpell. "The differences between what's going on there and what's going in a school that does not have a theme are fairly subtle."
Christopher Usi, the TDSB's superintendent for student success, said that Toronto is behind other urban areas, especially in the United States, in terms of the proportion of alternative schools it offers. (About 40 per cent of schools in New York are specialized schools.)
Mr. Usi said that each of the alternative schools in Toronto offers a different theme, "but what they all have in common is they're small."
Last year, there were only 3,583 students enrolled in the 37 alternative schools of the TDSB. (That's less than 97 students per school.)
TDSB chair John Campbell said that enrolment can sometimes shrink until split-level classes will include three grades.
He said the ideas for the focus of the school often come from the community and alternative schools are often characterized by a high degree of parental involvement.
This year, at the new Whole Child School for children in junior kindergarten to Grade 4, there will be emphasis on learning outside the classroom, and students will tend a garden.
The Grove Community School, for children in junior kindergarten to Grade 3, promises a curriculum that will promote environmentalism, social justice and community activism.
The da Vinci School, which is also for children in junior kindergarten through Grade 3, will offer a more integrative approach to teaching subjects such as art, music and reading as well as early introductions to French and Latin.
None of these new additions has been so controversial as the Africentric Alternative School, which will integrate elements of black culture and heritage with the Ontario curriculum.
Annie Kidder, the executive director of People for Education, has a daughter who is about to enter Grade 11 at a specialized school.
She said that these types of schools can be helpful in engaging students and increasing participation, but that they fall short because they can't reach every child.
She pointed to studies in England that show that alternative schools divide children along socioeconomic lines because it's the most affluent families that chose these specialized programs.
"The issue becomes whether or not in specialty schools we lose our focus on the neighbourhood school and on ensuring that the neighbourhood school is a great school that works for all students," she said.
Each of the 41 alternative schools in the Toronto District School Board offers a slightly different theme. Here are some diverse examples:
- Delphi Secondary Alternative School This 26-year-old alternative high school offers Problem-Based Learning (PBL), the same teaching method used at McMaster University's Medical School and Harvard Business School. The student body is small, there were only 136 students last year, and teachers promote computer use and problem solving.
- School of Life Experience (S.O.L.E.) This school offers Grade 10 through 12 and allows students who are parents to bring their infant children to class. The school is located near Coxwell and Danforth Avenues and there were 205 students enrolled last year.
- The Triangle Program at Oasis Alternative School offers Canada's only continuous intake high school program for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. It offers a homophobia-free environment and an extensive support network of guidance counsellors and youth workers.
- Quest Alternative Senior School Grade 7 and 8 students at this alternative school participate in ambitious excursions. In the fall, the school moves to the Greenwood Conservation Area for a week of camping and field studies. In the winter, the students travel to Quebec for French immersion studies, and then in June they go camping and hiking in Tobermory.