Tiny school, big ideas

Welcome to High Park Day School, where grades are nixed, ages are mixed, and classroom sizes are capped at a dozen.

By Fabiola Carletti
Previously published by The Grid TO

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.”

… continue reading

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