Friday, March 15, 2019

Our School in Crisis

My son took this for his media arts class at school.
Twelve and a half years ago my son entered Kindergarten and became resentful of school. He hated not being able to sit with the grade threes who he felt particularly drawn to, and he hated the kitchen because that was where he was supposed to do the alphabet rap, and nobody listened when he said he didn’t want to do it. He didn't even like art, because he wanted to use the materials in a different way than he was told to. And he dictated the words "I do not like it" for his book report, about a book he had never been interested in reading. He only loved lunch time, when he would commune with his grade three friends until I came to get him from his half-day program. So we took him out of school at the end of that year and threw ourselves into the world of unschooling.

Academically, unschooling was exactly what he needed. It enabled him, and later his sister, to self-direct, to listen to their own hearts’ desires and act accordingly. The separation from traditional school programs meant my sensitive kids were protected from the often viciously competitive and degrading social scene of public schools, and they grew up with a real self-respect and respect for others. The ability to follow their own passions meant that by grades three and five they were following online university courses in child development, nutrition, and physics and astronomy. They had a small group of peers, and friends in every school in our community.

Unschooling was growing in popularity. We connected with various homeschool groups on our island and on the mainland, and I even ran a program that offered science and art education through unschooling principles of self-direction and explorative learning. Even the mainstream began to take notice of the simple truth that giving kids room to play with broad overarching ideas and respectfully allowing them to direct their own learning is hugely beneficial. A few years ago, our provincial curriculum was overhauled to focus on core competencies such as critical and creative thinking – a broader view to nurturing humans who will grow to feel competent instead of competitive. It’s beautiful, but too late for my kids who, at twelve and fourteen, had been learning this way all along, while the school system in our province is just beginning its first halting steps towards this way of thinking.

Around this same time, teens in our community became increasingly more swept up in the school system, or moved away entirely, and my kids became very lonely. Academically, unschooling still suited them well, but the isolation became a social disaster. So we tried out some schools, very carefully chosen to most adequately serve our kids’ distinct social and academic needs. But despite many good and well-meaning teachers, the inflexible nature of those schools meant a kind of academic stifling that left my kids disinterested and disempowered.

Enter Windsor House School. Three years ago, when we thought we’d hit the end of the road in terms of finding a community for our children, we discovered Windsor House. This school, one of only a handful of democratic programs in our very large province, has been operating for longer than I’ve been alive, offering a truly open-minded education for those brave enough to give it a try. When we walked in the doors to our first orientation day, we discovered that the bathrooms were all non-gendered. The classrooms and activities were open to all ages. The meetings, such as the judicial council meeting, were chaired by student volunteers of many ages, and attended by students and teachers alike. The entire school operated on the basis of mutual respect. Period. And it worked.

In short, Windsor House is the public school that offers “room to grow, and be yourself”. There are kids of all ages here, from kindergarten to grade twelve, studying and socializing and creating the community they need to grow in, for themselves. My daughter has grown out of her early obsession with writing stories and studying child development, and now is fully immersed in Windsor House’s theatre program, where she has discovered her love of musical theatre. She still writes (musicals, now!) and Windsor House supports her in that, allowing her to use her work towards English credits. My son was allowed to fulfill part of his grade ten science credit by attending an adults’ robotics club and physics lectures at the university, and reporting back to his teacher… while still going to the farm with school just to feed the goats. As a rule, Windsor House listens to students, and follows their lead. That results in a school community that is both empowered and respectful.

As I write this, the students of Windsor House are having an important meeting. Some of them had already planned a meeting for today, where they intended to discuss the distinct culture of the school, and how to keep it strong. But that topic has been put on hold, because yesterday we learned that the district intends to close the school at the end of this year. This is an emergency.

We understand that it was a financial decision made by a cash-strapped school board on the heels of a devastating audit fine. (As an aside, what kind of forward thinking provincial education ministry believes that impoverishing a school district with fines could promote improvement?) We also understand that closing schools is a good way to save money, and surely the least harmful schools to close are the smallest – easy enough for those children to be absorbed into the remaining schools.

But not us. The two hundred students of Windsor House School are here because they’re different. They have worked hard to create a democratic community that will feed their present and their future. They can’t just filter out into regular schools and blend in. These are kids who are used to having their ideas heard and respected. These are kids who, because of this culture of respect, have the integrity to make our entire school system better. Windsor House is an example of the best of schools. It’s a beacon to where we can go as a society when the new curriculum is fully implemented in our province. It’s a haven for parents and educators who have struggled and persevered both inside and outside the system to give students a truly empowering foundation. These people – and the school itself – are one of our province’s greatest resources.

It is my hope and conviction that that group of students meeting today will find the strength required to pull their community out of the ashes and rise. Windsor House has rallied to blows like this before, and we can do it again. It is my hope that the district and the province find a way to support and nurture this wonderful small school so that it can continue to be both an asset to our province as well as a demonstration of successful democratic education. Today also happens to be the global youth climate walk-out. Our children face a kind of global devastation we adults never imagined, and they’re taking it, head-on. In times as turbulent as these, we need all the forward-thinking strength we can muster. Let our children rise.

Despite many efforts by Windsor House staff and parents, the school board will definitely be closing the school, as well as various special programs within the district. It's a tragedy that our government tries to improve education by impoverishing school districts, and this is why.

Windsor House, however, cannot vanish. We and a large group of dedicated parents will continue gathering for the same child-respecting self-directed activities as we did before, and although Windsor House School may no longer be an entity, it will henceforth become a verb. We plan to do Windsor House - with all the glory and freedom that that entails, and in the same beautiful community. Our children will still gather, and self-direct their lives and education. They will still thrive.

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