Welcome to High Park Day School, where grades are nixed, ages are mixed, and classroom sizes are capped at a dozen.
Quinn arrived at High Park Day School (HPDS) with a strategy. The energetic eight-year-old, who had received many time-outs for failing to focus, had learned that sitting under a table and cradling a book would keep him out of trouble.
“He wasn’t really looking at the words,” said Aaron Downey, teacher and curriculum coordinator at HPDS, adding that the boy initially refused to read out loud—especially in front of his peers.
But last Thursday Quinn kneeled on his chair and, for the first time, sounded words out in front of a classroom full of older students.
“Your clo-th-ing i-dea,” he began, as Downey walked him through each syllable during a lesson on innovation in fashion design.
The class applauded its youngest member who, only months earlier, had insisted he couldn’t read.
The staff at Toronto’s High Park Day School, a small alternative school that does not divide its 8- to 13-year-old students by age, rejects the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” students, tailors homework to each child, and sends parents progress reports—partly written by the kids—instead of grades.
“[Students] understand that it’s not about being perfect—it’s about progress,” said Downey, who has taught in conventional school systems in Canada, Italy and Switzerland.
“It’s my job to figure out how a child learns best,” he added, admitting that the task has been easier with only eight students, who are so far all boys.
In designing their curriculum, Downey wove math and literacy skills throughout themed units. He teaches his students to ask open-ended questions, see the connections between lessons, and explore the topics that really switch them on.
“Traditional curriculum is so disjointed,” said Downey, adding that he felt a lot of pressure to compartmentalize and tick off boxes when teaching at other schools. “In a nutshell, we teach them how to learn, not what to learn.”
Group work is an important part of the learning experience at HPDS, as the school puts emphasis on interpersonal skills and collaboration.
Downey and Amanda Dervaitis, principal and HPDS founder, acknowledge that some kids thrive in conventional schools, but argue that too many feel alienated from a system that doesn’t accommodate every child’s learning style.
“Why does school have to be stressful?” asked Dervaitis, who added that many kids feel about school that way adults who hate their jobs feel about work.
The little school is among those pushing for radical reforms in education, a system that creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson says privileges standardization and conformity over customization and diversity.
Robinson, who was knighted in the UK for his contribution to re-imagining education, argues that a small group of “academic” students are rewarded while a larger group of “non-academic” students are typically ignored or even stigmatized.
“This is deep in the gene pool of public education, that there are really two types of people … smart people and non-smart people,” he once said in a speech for the Royal Society of Arts. “And the consequence of that is that many brilliant people think they’re not.”
Dervaitis, who is fan of Robinson’s work, believes tomorrow’s adults must be equipped with confidence, critical thinking, interpersonal skills, and enough self-awareness to recognize and apply their skills in a rapidly-changing world.
“Character development is a huge part of our philosophy, and we teach attitudes explicitly,” added Downey, who has given lessons in eye contact, active listening, and empathy.
Although HPDS has hit its stride in many ways, it is likely to experience its share of growing pains come September.
The school will be taking in five new students, including girls, and moving out of their current home inside the Oxford Learning‘s High Park tutoring centre at 2150 Bloor St. W.
“We’re not eager to grow too quickly,” said Dervaitis, reinforcing the commitment to 12-child classrooms and individualized learning plans. One possible route is to set up small sister schools instead of moving to increasingly bigger locations.
A challenge for parents looking for alternatives may be the price of admission. Although HPDS eventually hopes to offer bursaries, its current $13,000 to $14,500 tuition fees may be out of reach for many families (though a touch more affordable than comparable alternative schools).
And the decision to switch school systems is not one made lightly, added Diane Leahy, a parent who enrolled her 11-year-old in September.
Nearing the end of the school year, however, Leahy said she sees the difference in her child every morning.
“Typically, there would be days in the past where he’d say I don’t like school, I don’t want to school,” she said. “But, so far, we haven’t had another day like that. No stomach ache, no headache, no fear.”