For 20 years, an uptown alternative school has been giving girls the opportunity to become the embodiment of Beyoncé’s lady-power anthem.
Last Friday morning, the creaky old house at 10 Rosehill Ave. that serves as the Linden School echoed with the sound of squealing, laughing little girls. The noise seemed more like the sort of volume generated by a tweenaged celebrity sighting than recess, but this was no ordinary school. High school seniors amicably shared the halls with first-graders—and neither group exhibited an iota of haughtiness or insecurity towards the other. After grabbing snacks out of their lockers, the senior girls helped guide the younger contingent up the stairs to the rooftop playground. A teenager held the door open for a tiny first-grader who was carefully balancing an open Tupperware container filled with grapes.
The Linden School, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend, was founded in 1993 by Diane Goudie and Eleanor Moore as part of an ambitious experiment to carve out a girls’ school “of one’s own.” This female empowerment academy is something of an anomaly; it’s the only one of its kind in Toronto. At Linden, 115 girls from Grades 1 through 12 cover the Ontario curriculum framed within feminist principles and teaching methods. There are a number of other alternative schools in the city, some of which, like the Downtown Alternative School, even share a similar focus on social activism. The Linden School is the only one with a distinctive grrrl-power twist—a bold and joyful application of feminist theory.
In Principal Dr. Mary Ladky’s office, books like Liberating Women’s History and Women, Art & Society were perched alongside textbooks and dictionaries. A framed photo of British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst hung on the wall. “In the early ’90s, it was clear that there was a need to re-make or offer an alternative view of what girls’ education looked like,” said Ladky of the school’s initial approach. “Now, I think you get many people shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘What does that mean, [now that] women have made so many advances?’ But there is still a need; there is still a glass ceiling for women.”
The school attracts a wide swath of students from across the GTA—not necessarily just Rosedale elites. Although it demands a hefty $15,000-plus tuition, a significant percentage of students receive bursaries. Linden’s administration has also turned increasingly towards fundraising to make tuition more manageable for the average parent.
Linden features everything you’d expect from an alternative school, from suspension yoga to animal activism clubs to string ensembles. A sign on one door read “Gender Neutral Bathroom—All Bodies Welcome.” The school recently banned hand-held devices to encourage more interaction, and its no-tryout policy for sports gives everyone a shot.
But you only have to look as far as the kids to see the effects of the progressive approach. On the rooftop, girls hula-hooped, dribbled basketballs, skipped, and shouted, with pairs breaking off to whisper to each other. Even the little ones were remarkably self-assured and confidently approached me, eager to learn why I was there. Seven-year-old Serena snacked on nectarine slices while her buddy, six-year-old Zayin, scanned the playground from behind thick plastic yellow-framed sunglasses. Serena told me she loves her teachers and her favourite subject is “making friends.” Eleven-year-old Leah also sang the praises of the Linden model: “I feel a lot safer here. Everyone is so nice and there are no boys to boss you around. They would just get in your way. But here it’s just comfortable.”
When I asked if students receive a rude awakening upon graduating into the “real” world, Ladky said that alumni were imbued with a sense of autonomy and certainty. “I think that confidence spills over socially—they feel like, ‘I belong here.’ That means they can join clubs, or put themselves out there in ways that are going to make them successful socially. They don’t see it as a deficit.”
When we got back to her office, the ceiling shook as what sounded like a herd of buffalo stampeded above. It was the primary-level girls settling in for their lessons. “How is it possible that they can make the floor move?” Ladky wondered aloud, shaking her head and smiling. “They’re the little ones.”