In 2011 the Toronto Catholic District School Board engaged Dr. Fine and Dr. Nina Bascia, a professor at OISE, to conduct research on alternative school models and issues in the TDSB and several other local boards of education in the Greater Toronto Area. This work was in support of a rigorous TCDSB review for renewal of its own alternative and adult education programs. It provided information on the issues and models associated with alternative schooling in the available literature and within the Greater Toronto Area. The review focused on trends in programs for specific targeted student populations with distinctive needs; varying program/service delivery models; the relationship between program philosophy and structure, administration and staffing; and differing models of governance, funding and administrative structure.
The literature review revealed that alternative schools have been established for a wide range of students who have not been well served by regular public schools. While the literature identified a number of program elements appropriate for particular student groups, several design elements appear to be nearly universal: small size, allowing for greater personalization of academic and social interactions; dedicated teachers and specialized staff; flexible supports; and targeted, coherent academic programs. There was little information on within-school governance issues other than the advisability of structures for shared decision making among teachers (and sometimes students and parents), there were a number of issues identified as relevant to school board-level governance, including the management, and the challenges of evaluating, diverse programs and the challenges inherent in replicating alternative school models effectively.
Publicly available information gathered from seven local school boards, both public and Catholic, revealed significant similarities as well as differences in delivery models, administrative structure and governance. Similarities include the particular populations targeted, commitment to flexible programming and timetabling, small class sizes and community partnerships. There are differences in structure, ranging from shared space within a school, to central administration with satellite sites, to independently structured schools with distinct philosophies that share physical space. There are also differences in length of history (some dating back as far as the early 1970s), sequence of events, program longevity and the extent to which new schools are still being established.
Subsequently Professors Fine and Bascia organized a major conference on alternative schools (2012) and are co-editors with Dr. Malcolm Levin (Professor Emeritus, OISE) of the recently published book Alternative Schooling and Student Engagement, Canadian Stories of Democracy within Bureaucracy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Raising Peacemakers, by Esther Sokolov Fine was published by Garn Press in 2015. This book tells the story of Dr. Fine’s twenty-three-year study with a group of students, teachers, and parents from the Downtown Alternative School in the TDSB.