The Rise of Alternative Education in the Vancouver School District

Students pose on the fire escape outside the Total Ed Alternative School.



Author:  Mary Jo Campbell, Founder of the 8J9J Alternative Program at Britannia Secondary School

In the volatile 1960s and the early 1970s, when Alternative Education was born in Vancouver, ideas about education and public education were changing rapidly. It was an exciting time of continuous change and it was an unforgettably creative era. There was a strong political influence as the New Left developed. It was during the time of nuclear disarmament, the civil rights movement, the rise of the counter culture and the rise of feminism. The women’s movement and the fight for gay rights were at the front of the social justice movements. It was a time of activism, a time of fighting back. The power and the voice of young people were beginning to be heard. There was a demand for change.

A real sense of dissatisfaction with the state of the public school system was evident. Many felt that the public school system was authoritative, competitive, and unimaginative. Many students were feeling alienated from formal education and were dropping out of school or being ‘asked to leave’. Parents were asking for answers and solutions.

Alternatives were part of a broad movement of social change in which people ceased to be rule followers.

 Originally, we were known as free schools and academic drop-in centres.

We were housed in church basements, storefronts and eventually, portables for the most part. We were idealists, motivated by a sense of social and democratic responsibility. We placed a high value on personal freedom, individualism and respect. By 1971, most free schools had closed, and the alternative schools were slowly joining the public school system. We were funded by grants for those first years, 1970-1974.

In 1973, we were called ‘Options in Public Education’

A.C.T., The Administrative Coordinating Team, identified “a significant number of students whose educational requirements are not being satisfied by the present system.” It further stated:

“Alternative Schools have developed over the last few years, outside the system and have usually been referred to as ‘free schools’ and that they have attempted to take care of the drop out, stop out and other disaffected youth.”

It then declared:

“Alternative Education is not the free school movement, nor should not be considered an effort to overthrow the existing system in the name of reform. It does mean, however, opening up learning options within the framework of the public school system. And that the existing system should remain a viable option, but other options should be developed within the same system to attract alienated students back into education or to retain those who might drop out.”

It went on to describe the difference between Alternative Programs and Alternative Schools:

  • Alternative Programs — a different learning option available within a regular school.
  • Alternative Schools — a different type of school, providing a learning environment not now available for disenchanted youth.

In 1974, several sponsoring agencies, including the Vancouver School Board, The Department of Education and The Department of Human Resources, (and to a small extent, the Attorney Generals Department) jointly funded nine programs in the Vancouver area for the 1974-75 school year:

  1. Total Education (Hamber)
  2. 8J-9J (Britannia)
  3. The Bridge (Tupper)
  4. The Vinery (Kitsilano)
  5. Last Chance High which became East Side (Gladstone)
  6. Step-Up (Kitsilano)
  7. Outreach (Britannia)
  8. Kitsilano House
  9. Grandview (Elementary)

Each of these programs was assigned to a particular Vancouver school and was considered a class at that school even though some of the programs were off campus – in store fronts or churches. We were generally small with about 25 students to 1 teacher, 1 child care worker and 1 portable unit. Total Education, however, was larger and was housed in 5 ‘huts’ or portable facilities with 85 students, 4 teachers, 4 teacher’s aides, 3 child care workers and 2 manpower workers.

In early May 1975, we were labeled as ‘Rehabilitation Programs’

 In May 1975, the Educational Research Institute of British Columbia conducted an evaluation of the 9 original Alternative ‘Rehabilitation’ Programs.

In their Evaluation Report, ERIBC described these programs as an ‘intervention’, an attempt to rehabilitate the rising number of young people who were unable to function within the regular public school system. Our students were labeled as:

  • Failures
  • Drop outs or suspensions
  • Behavioral problems in the community with frequent police contacts and official court records
  • Often coming from families with serious problems such as alcoholism, unemployment or divorce

The Evaluation Report stated that “such persons are likely to be costly to society in terms of crime and other unproductive behaviour, or dependent on the government for support in future years.”

These young people were identified as having particular correctible problems in three major areas:

  • a serious deficiency in basic academic skills
  • a very negative self image and lack of confidence
  • a lack of experience in the broader environment in which they exist

The Evaluation Report also noted:

“The sponsors have funded a series of ‘alternative’ rehabilitative educational programs for ‘these’ students. The agencies intend that these programs be designed to:

  1. Provide school programs which will emphasize the basic skills and provide both remedial and developmental programs in English and mathematics
  2. Enhance each student’s self esteem and self confidence;
  3. Offer opportunities and experiences which will enable each student to deal realistically with his or her life and environment; and
  4. Enable the student to re-enter society through the regular school, vocational training, or direct entry into the world of work.”

The first three points addressed student needs; the fourth reflected the intent that the programs be rehabilitative in nature. With these purposes and intentions in mind, the sponsoring agencies jointly funded nine programs in the Vancouver area for the 1974-75 school year.

A year later, in May 1976, the VSB evaluated 14 Alternative Rehabilitation Programs. (including seven of the original nine programs)

Created during the 1975-76, school year:

  1. Byng Satellite (Byng)
  2. K.A.T. (Kitsilano)
  3. O.K. East (Killarney)
  4. O.K. West (John Oliver)
  5. Riley Park (Tupper)
  6. Streetfront (Britannia)
  7. Sunrise East (Technical)

In view of the wealth of information provided by the ERIBC assessment, the VSB Administrative Coordinating Team on Alternative Education decided that another external evaluation was unnecessary for the time being. Rather, they recommended that the staffs of the programs in existence prior to September 1975 be requested to “perform a self-evaluation along specific guidelines.”

A.C.T. also recommended that an external evaluation should be performed on all seven new programs.

The example and success of the original Vancouver alternative schools, along with the wider cultural changes of the time, led to a more flexible and inclusive public school system in the 1970s

1998: The Pearmain Report

In March 1998, everything changed with the Secondary District Program Review completed by Bob Pearmain. We called it The Pearmain Report. This review of both the Specified District Alternative Programs and the Rehabilitation Programs resulted in many recommendations for change even though the reviewer noted that “the programs currently in place are serving the students well.

The Rehabilitation Programs were characterized as “programs designed to assist students who have not met with great success in the mainstream school, whose self esteem is fragile, and who, in addition to educational needs, often have behaviour, social or emotional problems.”

It is noteworthy that only four of the Rehabilitative programs were visited for this review and only two of these were ‘original programs’. The reviewer noted that “There exists a feeling of distrust amongst the teachers, support staff and parent community about the motives of district office” and cautioned Senior Management to “confirm with the alternative system their support and appreciation and to develop a sense of trust amongst the various players.”

Recommendations were presented under two general headings: those requiring District Action and those requiring School Action.

One of the first recommendations was to discontinue the use of the term ‘Rehabilitation’ because of its strong negative connotations and replace it with a less labeling term. This was received as a positive recommendation.

Another recommendation was to have Learning Services and Secondary School Administrators develop a set of common expectations, entrance and exit criteria and supervision strategies. This proved problematic for many programs. It was seen as an attempt to change the unique characteristics of each program. For the most part, it addressed the situation with intermediate programs (grades 9 and 10) especially those off site. The reviewer felt the “alternative personnel have been reluctant to become a part of the larger secondary school community with its more public accountability.” He went further saying; “This is not a situation that should be allowed to continue.”

A third recommendation to establish a third senior secondary program for students who have completed an intermediate alternative rehabilitation option did not materialize. The reviewer also recommended that mainstream students not be permitted to enroll in the two senior secondary programs as they were occupying seats that would normally be available to students who had completed the intermediate alternative programs. This basically targeted the Total Education program.

A fourth recommendation was to have Facilities Services review the current facilities occupied by off campus Rehabilitation Programs. The reviewer noted that many programs were operating in less that acceptable facilities especially those off site, and recommended that it would be more cost effective to place programs in portables on the site of the supervising school.

A fifth recommendation was that Business Administration and school administration oversee how the Rehabilitation staff implement lunch program and bus pass regulations.

The sixth recommendation was that District Learning Services develop a brochure outlining the Rehabilitation Alternative programs available to Vancouver students.

Finally, the report recommended extending a First Nations option in the Rehabilitation area to the grade 12 level. The Outreach program was suggested.

Measuring Success

An article in ‘The High School Magazine’ in May 1999, titled ‘History and Issues of Alternative Schools’ (an American Magazine) seemed to also describe Vancouver’s Alternatives history and issues:

“Many early alternatives appeared so successful that alternative schools were adopted to serve all sorts of purposes, including as answers to juvenile crime and delinquency, as a means of preventing school vandalism and violence, a means of dropout prevention and as a means of heightening school effectiveness. Each purpose shaped the alternative school in a different way and supplied the criteria by which it was judged — especially when external funding was involved, and it often was.

If the purpose was to change the school system, as in the 1970s, the measure of success was the extent of system change that occurred in the public school system”.

2008: The McCreary Report

By 2008 we were called Alternative Resource Programs and the Vancouver School Board listed 28 different Alternative Resource Programs in the new brochure. Only 21 of the 28 were actually members of our association (VASAP).

In the 2008 Report, ‘Making the Grade – A Review of Alternative Education Programs in BC’, conducted by the McCreary Centre Society, a review of 14 of Vancouver’s Alternative Education Programs was included.

The Report offered the following praise:

“This review shows that the programs are predominately succeeding, by using teaching methods which incorporate a youth’s individual strengths, learning style and life experiences, and by placing a strong emphasis on building community connections and developing positive, supportive and healthy relationships. Programs are not only providing an arena where youth would otherwise be out of school, can pursue educational outcomes, they also provide an environment in which youth feel valued, supported and engaged.”