UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Alternative schools in British Columbia, 1960-1975 Rothstein, Harley S.


Significant numbers of Canadians in the 1960s believed their society and their schools required substantial change. A few, believing the public school system was authoritarian, competitive, unimaginative, and unlikely to change, set out to establish their own schools. In British Columbia, like-minded parents, educators, and even high school students founded over twenty alternative schools in the 1960s and early 1970s in the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, and the West Kootenays. Most of these people nourished idealistic world views comprising elements of pacifism, socialism, or spiritual mysticism. They claimed to be motivated by a sense of social and democratic responsibility, and also put a high value on personal freedom and the possibility of public and private transformation. Until the 1960s British Columbia independent schools had been organized chiefly on religious, ethnic, or class grounds. However, founders of alternative schools in the early 1960s typically followed a Progressive approach, emphasizing a "child-centred" curriculum based on the ideas of John Dewey. Later in the decade alternative schools took up the Romantic or "free school" ideas of A.S. Neill, and allowed young people almost complete freedom to organize their own educational activities (or none at all), and to be responsible for their own behaviour. They were influenced by the American Progressive and English Romantic educational traditions as well as Canadian social democracy, the American counterculture of the late 1960s, and the Human Potential Movement. By the early 1970s, alternative schools became "therapeutic" with the goal of attracting alienated young people back into the educational sphere and helping them to achieve personal growth. Two fundamental tensions existed in alternative schools-how democratic their decisionmaking would be, and how directive or free the adults would be in regulating the academic learning of the students. Although these schools tried to govern themselves in a participatory democratic manner, consensus was difficult to achieve. Furthermore, the participants could not usually agree on which educational approach they favoured. For students attending alternative schools educational results were mixed. Although most believed they had gained in self-reliance and inter-personal skills, many did not acquire sufficient literary or arithmetic knowledge and found their educational and professional careers limited. Alternative schools were hindered by financial instability, parental divisiveness, and the absence of a workable educational methodology. Further, the schools accepted too many children with special needs, or hired too many young adult teachers whose enthusiasm was greater than their pedagogical skill. Meanwhile, the social and cultural upheavals of the late 1960s had at last caused the public school system to accept some of the pedagogical and psychological premises of the alternate school movement. The examples of the alternative schools of the 1960s and early 1970s, along with the wider cultural changes of the time, led to a more flexible and inclusive public school system in the 1970s.

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