The importance of funding alternative schools
// Claire Vulliamy

When I used to tell people that I went to an alternative school, major misconceptions would crop up: that I did something criminal, that I had an IQ in the genius levels, or that my parents were paying for it. In actuality, “alternative” can mean anything, and in the case of a student who is falling through the cracks of the educational system, it means a place to land.

I went to City School, an alternative school that exists within King George Secondary in Vancouver’s West End. Near the entrance is a map of Vancouver with all the major intersections, and the names of students and teachers pinned down wherever they live. The pins are almost equally spaced across the city, with commutes ranging from five minutes to two hours.

While currently a program for grades ten to 12, City School previously included elementary as well as high school. In the early days of its formation in 1971, the school was significantly different. The population, now numbering 30, sat somewhere around 75, “on paper maybe a 120,” according to Sal Robinson, the current longestrunning member of staff. Staff assistant, though de facto teacher, Sal began working at the school in 1977 – immediately after her own graduation from City School. T

he reason for the overarching name City School was a style of learning that used the city as a classroom. The original modus operandi was to “go out and learn anything and everything, everywhere,” describes Sal. In order to attain credits, she explains, the student had to make a case that they had “fulfilled the goals” of a course. While some elements of this approach remain, after the provincial exams were introduced, Sal explains, “the curriculum content became more important than the process.”

One longstanding rebellion against the curriculum is a credit course called Independently Directed Studies (IDS) which allows students to study any topic they like, design their own course structure, and then present evidence that they accomplished their goals by the end of the term. In City School, it functions the same way any elective would. Not all IDS projects work out: I remember proposing a deliberately antiacademic “pastry reviewing” IDS with two other classmates, which was not accepted.

The input of the students’ classes such as Physical Education, under the direction of the students, became one game of dodge ball after another. The City School students bonded with the King George cafeteria chef, as our extra classroom was essentially a closet behind the lunchroom. We arranged for the chef, who is also an archery instructor at Academie Duello, to come in to teach us archery, sword fighting, and the fine art of multiple push-ups. Afterwards we were taught practical lessons in nutrition, and, best of all, fed. This unlikely partnership taught me one of my most valuable life lessons: how to eat more than just cereal and cheese sandwiches.

That is what defines City School’s nature: it is an open school. In a classroom setting, the tone is conversational. Some classes see the entire school in one room, some are pared down to five people in a quiet corner. Questions are encouraged, and teachers are addressed by their first names. In City School’s 2010 yearbook, one student describes her impressions of the space: “The large communal desks in the main portion of the school formed an open circle, which I interpreted as an equality-based layout.” The school itself is primarily one room, which formerly served as a metal shop, with a glass-paneled garage door that rolls up onto a small, enclosed garden.

The philosophy of the school was influenced in part by what many consider to be one of the original “free” or democratic schools, England’s Summerhill School formed by Scottish author A.S. Neill in 1921. Summerhill essentially gave students freedom to choose their path to education. Neill wrote that “the function of the child is to live his own life – not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots."

From the start of its existence, City School, like Summerhill, has fostered democratic principles by hosting a general meeting once a week to share announcements about the school and to resolve issues. Anyone can put an item on the agenda to be subject for discussion, often at length. Unlike Summerhill, which is a private school, City School is part of the public school system: free and open to anyone who wishes to apply.


The funding of public education in British Columbia has been a heavily contested issue. Declining rates of student populations have resulted in budgets shrinking or stagnating. From 2000 to 2010, Vancouver’s student enrollment declined by about five per cent. In 2010, the provincial education budget for grades eight to 12 was $1.88 billion, the same as the year previous.

A news release from the provincial government from March 2010 said that “in education, per-pupil funding for students in the K-12 levels will rise from $8,200 in 2009-10 to an estimated $8,301 for 2010-11,” stressing that the amount of money spent on individual students is higher than ever. However, with rising operating costs of schools and the base rate of equipping classrooms with teachers, among other expenses, the Vancouver School Board was faced with a shortfall of approximately $16 million after receiving their provincial funding.

The average class size in BC is around 25 students, with around five per cent of classes having a total over 30. City School has two full-time teachers and one part-time staff assistant on board, which, for the 30-something population, is above the provincial average.

or that reason, when the Vancouver Board of Education released its revised preliminary operating budget proposals for 2010/2011, one of the positions at City School was on the chopping block. In the introduction of the document, it was stated that “… the impact of the reductions proposed in order to balance the proposed 2010/2011 operating budget will shake the very core of the [Vancouver school] system.”

Members of City School reacted against the cuts by attending public hearings and protests. Former COPE School Board Trustee Allen Blakey visited City School shortly after the budget proposals were released to speak with students.

“I liked the fact that there was no automatic agreement with my views, but rather questioning and stimulating comments. And everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves,” says Blakey of his visit. Blakey also returned to City School in 2011 to attend their 40 year reunion.

In regards to the proposed cuts, Blakey says that he is “not of the view that all school staffing should be the same. In particular, I believe that students growing up in poverty with two strikes against them from the start should have smaller classes and more resources to give them a more equal chance to have an equal outcome with other students … City School I perceive to be a program to enable students who find themselves unable to function effectively in regular programs to continue their education in a more open atmosphere. I support improved staffing for such a purpose.”

Another long-time alternative school in Vancouver, Ideal Mini, was also faced with the potential problem of losing a staff member. Leah Pacilla, a parent of an Ideal Mini student and a member of the Parent Advisory Committee, told the Vancouver Observer in 2010, "If we lost a teacher, that would be one of our pillars. It would hobble our core function."

Students at Lord Byng Secondary also rallied to save eight teachers who were to be laid off by creating a Facebook group and petition. Two of the teachers at Byng were later rehired. Similarly, after students, teachers, and parents made their voices heard, City School did not lose their staff member.

Sal says that this is nothing new: “Every time the budget comes up we’re on tenterhooks, in the last few years I think more so than ever.”


The newest head teacher, Jay, previously worked as an environmental engineer before starting teaching at mainstream high schools and eventually hearing about the opening at City School. “I had the expectation that it would be a lot of work, because you’re teaching a lot of subjects,” Jay says, but he was pleased about the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers and that there “would be more opportunity to build relationships with students because you’re with them for more than a block on every second day.”

Jay explains that being part of the LGBT community has also influenced his motivation as a teacher. “I did volunteer work with [LGBT] youth before I got into teaching,” and as such, “[I] spent a lot of time connecting with young people who … didn’t feel safe in school, or they didn’t feel heard.”

Sal has many memories of what the small school has accomplished. Among them are Canadian exchange trips to PEI, Quebec, and the Arctic, and large-scale projects such as school plays. Overall, however, “that we’re still here after all this time is quite an accomplishment,” says Sal, and an important one at that. “The people that are here are pretty happy about being here and that there is a here to be at,” she says.

Former student Bunny Meugens says that if it hadn’t been for City School, she wouldn’t have graduated. “My one teacher Gary,” head teacher at the time, “went above and beyond the call of duty.”

“When I was in the psych ward, he came and visited me. I knew that he was there for me if I needed him. Actually, I knew that about all of my teachers at city school. They weren’t just authority figures that gave me boring assignments and told me to be quiet in class. I think they genuinely cared about all of us and wanted to help us learn as much as we could.”

In my own graduating year a select group of students decided to make a yearbook for the school: designing it, binding it, and working out costs of printing on their own. One of the creators, Chris Liberty, wrote his thoughts on his educational experience: “Here we all help each other, through work, or friendship or guidance. That is why I love this place, no one forces you to do something, they ask. That strengthens my belief [that] City School is a living, breathing entity, an amalgam of all the students’ and teachers’ personalities. And this had a profound effect on me, I like going to school now. I mean it. I love going to City School.”

//Claire Vulliamy, arts editor
//Photo by Claire Vulliamy

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