Alternative, charter and public schools

In the name of efficiency, are we duplicating services?

This special feature of The ATA News profiles alternative, charter and public schools offering fine arts programming. The schools, located in Edmonton and area, are Edmonton Public Professional School of Ballet (alternative), Suzuki School of Music (charter) and Victoria School (public). Officials with the Suzuki School of Music declined the newspaper's request for interviews and a tour of their facility.

What are alternative and charter schools?

An alternative school is offered and operated by a public school board. The program or school normally emphasizes a particular language, culture, religion, subject matter or uses a particular teaching philosophy.

A charter school is an autonomous school that is established through a charter agreement with either a public school board or the minister of education.

It is intended that a charter school would be more than a few new or alternative school programs. Charter schools have their own school board and have considerable freedom to implement educational services that are different from public schools. The charter board is accountable to the local board or the minister of education depending upon who established the charter school.

—The Alberta Teachers' Association

Like a Phoenix rising: Arts revitalize school

Victoria School

Raymond Gariépy

"Art at Vic is a celebration of the human spirit, a celebration of the vitality and awe which is found abundantly in our students."

—Victoria School, Edmonton Public School, Gala '95

Television arts have supplanted automotives, and the places trades and services students plied their vocations, are now the domain of aspiring artists, actors, dancers and singers. Art has transformed—and revitalized—Edmonton's oldest public high school.

Home to luminaries such as actor Leslie Neilsen, lawyer and Citadel Theatre founder Joe Shoctor, and legendary pilot Wop May, the venerable Vic, opened in 1911, recently celebrated its tenth anniversary as Edmonton's preeminent arts school.

Victoria School, formerly Victoria Composite High School, has undergone an upheaval from an unassuming downtown vocational school with dropping enrollment to a hub of creative energy.

Principal Robert Maskell was hired in 1985 to resuscitate Victoria Composite High School and, explains Maskell, provide "something that wasn't offered elsewhere in the community." Easier said than done, considering no seed money was provided. Yet that didn't hamper Maskell's efforts to jump-start the arts program; he simply sold off the school's vocational equipment to raise cash.

"What happened wouldn't have happened without site-based management," Maskell stresses. Had he taken a traditional and bureaucratic approach, he believes the high school would have "sputtered and chugged along" rather than taken off.

And take off it did. The school's auto repair bays were converted into a TV studio. Classrooms were transformed into dance studios, theatre tech labs and painting and graphic arts studios. Enrollment rose. Today, approximately 1,500 students attend the school, the majority (80 percent) of which reside outside the school's boundary. As well, in response to younger students' increasing interest in arts-focused programs, and lack of such programs in Edmonton, the school opened its junior high program in 1994.

The school offers pre-professional training in television arts, theatre arts and commercial art. Choral, instrumental music, dance, drama, art and costuming are offered. Maskell says high school enrollment is "open," whereas prospective junior high students are asked to provide evidence of involvement in the arts, music or theatre.

Tami Dowler-Coltman is coordinator of the school's visual and performing arts program and teaches drama to Grades 10 to 12. She oversees a staff of 19 teachers, all of whom have education degrees in addition to formal arts education and experience. The entire school's teaching staff stands at 75.

Students at Victoria School are committed to the arts and school studies. This level of dedication lessens problems in the school, observes Dowler-Coltman. That's not to say the school isn't without its share of problems, she says, what happens is "students police themselves and coax students who aren't serious to leave."

The school's atmosphere is more intense than some schools, comments Dowler-Coltman. She attributes this to the nature of art—students are involved in self-exploration.

Maskell calls Victoria School "exemplary." He is unreserved in his praise of the school, its teachers and students. "At a time when we talk about the importance of self-esteem, we have students here who could put adults to shame in the amount of tenacity, commitment and passion they have for what they do."

Outside, towering above the school's fledgling sculpture garden, is a mural painted by students. The painting is based on a drawing by a student who jumped to her death. The mural depicts a street scene in which people of different backgrounds converge under a street lamp. In the drawing, several figures were falling to earth. However, when the students painted the mural, they inverted these figures so they were soaring rather than dropping.

Perhaps this mural, the result of collective creativity, best sums up Victoria School's spirit and makes a poignant statement about the endurance of the human spirit, and its ability to flourish and be healed through art.

Why Victoria School?

Sean Robertson (Grade 12)

A high school with a strong arts program attracted Sean Robertson to Victoria School. The school was indeed a strong magnet, Robertson moved on his own from Nova Scotia to Edmonton two years ago. "I was looking for a high school with a performing arts program. Unfortunately, there was nothing like that in Nova Scotia," Robertson explains.

Before making his move, Robertson first researched schools across Canada—Victoria School came out on top; second, he had to convince his parents to let him go.

As well as singing in two of the school's choirs, Robertson takes dance, musical theatre, drama, biology, social, math and French. He says his future is in musical theatre and drama. But first, he has to research which university to attend.

Glynis Price (Grade 9)

"I wanted to start in Grade 7, but it wasn't open then. No other junior high offers choral and drama. Vic is focused on art," says Glynis Price.

In addition to core subjects, Price takes choral, Drama 10 and Spanish 10. She also sings in the Vic Young Company choir. Price hopes to pursue a career in dance and singing.

Jason St. Laurent (Grade 8)

Seeing an opportunity to study drama while attending school prompted Jason St. Laurent to enroll at Victoria. "I'm basically interested in the arts," says St. Laurent. "I saw opportunity at Vic; they offer really good classes." St. Laurent took drama courses at Edmonton's Stage Polaris.

Partnering: Ballet school and public school perform pas de deux

Edmonton Public Professional School of Ballet

Koni Macdonald

In 1995, three schools applied to the Edmonton Public School Board for charters. After discussion, the schools agreed to become alternative programs. They are Cogito Alternative Program, Edmonton Public Professional School of Ballet and Nellie McClung Junior High.

If choice is what Albertans want, it seems that's what they'll get.

Consider the Edmonton Public Professional School of Ballet. Margaret Flynn, founder and artistic director of Edmonton School of Ballet since 1967 (see School roots), applied for and received alternative program status with Edmonton Public School Board this spring.

Two schools within the board offered to incorporate the ballet program, but after Flynn saw the space available at Bonnie Doon High School, she wasn't interested in looking elsewhere. Now, ballet students intermingle with Bonnie Doon students during core curriculum classes in the morning, and in the afternoon, they enter the world of dance on the third floor of the school's northwest wing.

Flynn says the ballet school's program is distinct because its goal is to train professional dancers and teachers. "Academically," she adds, "dancers do well and are often honors students due to learning discipline and self-contained concentration."

The school offers programs to junior and senior high students. A typical student's course load includes all the core subjects plus dance, physical education and ballet. "Upon graduation, students will have more credits than they need for university entrance," says Flynn. "Many of my former students end up in medicine, law and engineering."

Students take core subjects from certificated teachers. Dance instruction is given by teachers with associate or licentiate (licence granted by university to practise a profession) dance teaching certificates. "Our teachers are highly qualified with above average skills," says Flynn. "For example, the director of our jazz program has a physical education degree with a major in dance injuries, teaches part-time at university and is working on her master's degree." David Adams is another teacher at the dance school. Adams is a lead male dancer who has danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada and the Royal Ballet in England.

Students audition for enrollment. Flynn says she needs assurance prospective pupils have the physical ability and endurance to dance for hours at a time. Students also have to pay an annual production fee of about $600 to supplement the cost of costumes, choreography, production and hall rental. According to Flynn, the fee is low; for example, a tutu can cost anywhere from $200 to $600. The school is considering offering scholarships to students who have physical ability, but whose parents can't afford production fees.

Renovations to the dance school continue, but Flynn doesn't mind the inconvenience—raised floors and mirrors are essential. Costs are being borne by Alberta Lotteries, Bonnie Doon High School and Edmonton Public Professional School of Ballet, which still runs programs after school and on weekends.

"The school is the culmination of a lot of hard work, but it's a dream come true," says Flynn.

Why Professional School of Ballet?

Serena Sandford (Grade 7)

"I started taking ballet after school and on Saturdays when I was nine years old. The school is a really good idea because when I dance during the day I'm not as tired." As for academic classes, she says, "School is mostly the same, I don't have extra assignments or anything, but my academic classes have less students and we dance in the afternoons. I find the students here really focused and we have more in common."

Louise Sandford (Serena's mother)

"Combining academics and dance is a terrific idea. It's easier on Serena and it's easier on the whole family. Serena would like to become a ballerina. She has fewer injuries now that she dances every day and her skill level has improved." The new school meets her expectations. "We are more than happy with the outcome."

Anne McCready (Grade 10)

"I love to dance and it's so convenient having ballet and academics combined. The facility is absolutely wonderful."

Katie McCready (Grade 8)

"I think this school is neat and interesting. It's better than my old school and the kids are nicer. Dance is a little hard for me right now, but school is about the same. We have a bit more homework than my old school, but not much."

Sharon McCready (mother of Anne and Katie)

"We selected this school for Katie mostly because her older sister Anne is here. Anne's been dancing since she was five. I know this is right for Katie because she's never been happier. It's a really positive change."

School roots

Margaret Flynn founded the Edmonton School of Ballet in 1967. For the first three years, the ballet school offered after-school classes to approximately 80 students on the second floor above Hub Cigar Store on Whyte Avenue. By 1970, needing more space, the school rented rooms from Edmonton Separate School Board. When Flynn applied for alternative school status with Edmonton Public School Board, the ballet school had over 500 students with a staff of 25 to 30 teachers.

Edmonton Public Professional School of Ballet is backed by the Edmonton Public School Board. After school and on weekends, the Edmonton School of Ballet operates from the same building, and under the same director, as the Edmonton Public Professional School of Ballet. The difference between the two is the Edmonton School of Ballet is a private school. The dues charged students and profits earned are separate from the junior high and high school program supported by the board.

Innate talent: Imitation key to learning music

Suzuki Elementary School

Shelley Russell

Editor's Note—The ATA News attempted to arrange an interview at Suzuki Elementary School with staff, parents and students. The school spokesperson did not return our calls.

The following information has been gleaned from the charter school application of the Society for Talent Education, newspaper articles and other sources.

Suzuki Elementary School (SES) is one of five government-approved charter schools. The school is operated by the Society for Talent Education and enrols 12 kindergarten and 48 elementary students from Edmonton and surrounding communities.

Between 1987 and 1995, Suzuki Elementary School was a private school, operating as a kindergarten during its first three years and expanding one grade per year thereafter. Grade 6 was added this September, when the school obtained charter status.

The school integrates a basic academic education with music, French language and fine arts using the Suzuki methodology. The methodology, developed in the 1940s by the Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki and based on the philosophy of talent education, stresses that talent is innate, not learned, and that children learn best through imitation.

Parental involvement is critical to the learning process. All parents of Suzuki students are members of the school council and are invited to serve on committees. Parents are also encouraged to help their children with homework and science projects, attend concerts and fairs, volunteer in the classroom and accompany students on field trips.

Like other charter schools, Suzuki Elementary School must accept all students, provided sufficient space is available. Indeed, the school claims considerable success with special needs students.

"Suzuki Elementary School has attracted students in the past with identified special learning challenges," the application states. "Parents of these children have enrolled their children . . . because of the opportunity SES provides for individualized planning and programming, customized to the needs and inequities of each and every enrollee."

The school has one kindergarten and three elementary teachers, all of whom hold Alberta teaching certificates in addition to other credentials. For example, the kindergarten teacher has a bachelor of music degree in vocals and flute while one of the elementary teachers is an accomplished pianist with advanced academic credit in French.

This year, the society has budgeted $10,000 for its kindergarten teacher and $22,666 for each of its elementary teachers. One of the society's targets, as described in the application, is to bring its teachers' salaries up to par.

Class size has been capped at 16 students. "The low teacher/student ratio is a desired environmental element at SES," the application states. "It is essential to the school's milieu that this ratio not be exceeded."

From 1987 to 1995, Suzuki Elementary School was a private school, which charged $2,000 per year in tuition. Today, as a charter school, it does not charge tuition although parents are encouraged to pay $770 per year for extra music lessons.

Additional fees are levied for instrument rentals ($10 to $15 per month), lunch ($10 per month), after-school care ($4 per hour) and extra-curricular programs. Because charter schools do not receive funding for student transportation, Suzuki parents must arrange private transportation for their children.

Why Suzuki School?

Appended to the application of the Society for Talent Education are letters from parents, teachers and students supporting Suzuki Elementary School's request for charter school status.

Many letters highlight the school's emphasis on music, small classes and community spirit as its most desirable features. A few letters also criticize the public education system.

In a Canadian Press article that appeared in the September 7, 1995, Lethbridge Herald, Zoltan Berkes, who has two children enrolled at Suzuki, lauds the school's family-like atmosphere. "'When one teacher got married a couple of years ago, all the children were invited to the wedding and played violins in the church,'" he is quoted as saying. "'When would you see that in a public school?'"

Another Canadian Press article that appeared in the November 10, 1995, Red Deer Advocate, cites Sheila Davidson, the society's secretary-treasurer and a parent of two Suzuki students, as suggesting that Suzuki and other charter schools will ease the burden on public schools. "'The public schools have so many people to look after they couldn't possibly meet everyone's needs,'" she is quoted as saying.