Many people are aware, to some degree, of the work of Maria Montessori or, to a lesser degree, Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf schools. There are many more examples of course, and Canada is home to more than you might imagine: people who thought that education could be better and decided to do something about it.
Venta Preparatory Academy was established in 1981 by Dr. Agatha Sidlauskas who, at 103, remains the figurehead of the school. She was born in Lithuania in 1914, and had a front row seat for more history than she perhaps cared to see. Truly, she has lived an amazing life. As a child she was curious, nature oriented, and forthright—all things that didn’t bode well in Eastern European schools of the time. Later, working in the Italian Embassy in Vilnius, she was accused, at gunpoint, by a KGB agent of being a spy. She studied child psychology with a specific attention to school success—why some students did well while others didn’t, and worked with children on local pediatric psychiatric wards.
Her life in Canada began the moment she disembarked at Pier 21 in 1948, a refugee with a trunk full of books and little else. She worked as a domestic in Montreal, later becoming a nurse’s aid in the pediatric wards of General Hospital in Ottawa. "I connected with the children and found some success,” she said. “There were children who were bright but suffering. They had no joie de vivre. Something had to be done."
That was the nut from which Venta Preparatory Academy has grown. All of her experiences, in varying degrees, were entered into the mix, and her imprint remains today. The school rightly prides itself on providing individual attention to each student, and entrance exams are less about ranking proficiency as they are a means of getting a good, objective handle on each student’s specific strengths and needs. The program is built around appreciating each student’s talents, their curiosity, and in nurturing positive, respectful interpersonal relationships.
Sidlauskas has commented that, today in Canada "It is freedom without guidance. [Children] are healthy, well off, have physical well-being. So they emulate hockey or rock stars." The school intends to teach as much through example as instruction, to ultimately provide a broader sense of success and of possibility.
As a child Barbara Arrowsmith-Young struggled to learn, an experience she wrote about in her 2012 book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. She could understand concrete things, but struggled with concepts, ideas, and relationships. “My world was a series of disconnected bits and pieces of unrelated fragments," she said during a TEDx talk in 2013, "and eventually, my fragmented view of the world ended up causing a very fragmented sense of myself.”
“In Grade 1 I was identified as having a mental block. I was told I had a defect, and I was told that I would never learn like other children. And, really, the message at that time was loud and clear." Namely, that she would simply have to learn to live with her limitations.
Nevertheless, her father was an inventor who taught her that, if you need a solution, you go out and try to find one. And, she did. Her personal successes lead her to create the Arrowsmith School, a learning disabilities school in Toronto, Ontario, in 1980. Since then, program has also been adopted in schools in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia.
Arrowsmith-Young's methods have been met with skepticism, in part because they are based more in lived experience than objective research. That said, it’s true that the program has been successful, in many cases remarkably so. And, yes, there can be many reasons for it, not limited to neuroplasticity, including how educators approach children who are struggling. “What really breaks my heart,” says Arrowsmith-Young, “is that I still meet people today—children, people who are struggling with learning problems—and they’re still being told what I was told in 1957, that they need to learn to live with their limitations. They don’t dare to dream.” Her life, and the school, is an example of what can happen when you do.
Marie Lardino, the founder of Voice Integrative School (VIS) began her teaching career within the public system in Ontario. As such, she witnessed first-hand the impacts that the province-wide reforms begun in 1998—in particular standardized testing—had on her students. Grades, she felt, became a regrettable focus, increasing student stress and anxiety.
That was the impetus that lead her to found the VIS in 2000. It builds from the strength of having a common curriculum, though presenting it in a more personal, supportive, student-centred environment.
To date, the success of the school has been remarkable, gaining the attention of professional educators, and providing an example that many have chosen to emulate. Lardino, who remains head of school, believes that students learn best in environments where “belonging and safety are acknowledged, practiced, and celebrated.” The academic program is rigorous, though student success is a product of the empowerment that they feel each day when they arrive at school.
West Island College was founded by Terry Davies in 1974, and was intended to provide a strong bilingual option for families living on Montreal’s West Island. Davies felt that the future was upon us, and that schooling needed to respond if it was going to create the kind of leaders that would be required, and that’s the vision that continues to drive the school today.
Innovation wasn’t something that Davies readily shrank from, it would seem, as seen particularly in the development of the Class Afloat program, begun to mark the UN International Youth Year in 1984. He took students and staff on an extended sail, classes conducted on board a sailing ship, in order to mark the themes that the UN sought to emphasize: development, participation, peace. The West Island College schools aren’t as initially striking, perhaps, but the innovative, forward-looking spirit remains. In addition to the Montreal school and Class Afloat, West Island College has a sister school in Calgary, established in 1982. The ideal student is one who shares the school’s foundational values and can thrive in a very active and engaging student environment.
When Geraldine Mabin founded the Mabin School in 1980 it was considered strikingly experimental. Children were taught in open environments, followed their curiosity, and learned more through guided experience than direct instruction. A teacher at the school once commented that "Our pattern is to have no pattern." Today, despite the changing educational landscape in Canada during the intervening decades, the school remains at the vanguard of alternative education. While Mabin left the school in the 1998, it still reflects the ideals on which it was based, and she remains involved with the school today. "Time in the classroom for actual learning as opposed to teaching is shrinking," Mabin said in 2011. "There's a very high expectation on academics and testing. A lot of time is spent on drumming in lessons and worrying about kids who haven't made it. Children should be given time to learn things, to not be pushed." The instruction is strong, and supported through extensive cross-curricular programming. Parental involvement in the life of the school is encouraged.
—by Glen Herbert