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Windsor House 'democratic' alternate school program faces closure

Program with deep roots in the North Vancouver is being cut by Gulf Islands School District

An alternate school program with deep roots on the North Shore is facing possible closure.

Windsor House began in North Vancouver about four decades ago as a “democratic” parent-participation school where students decide what and how they want to learn. Students at the school aren’t put in grades or classes, are encouraged to pursue their own interests and don’t receive report cards. “We don’t force kids to go to school,” said Jennifer Bonnycastle, parent advisory council chair for Windsor House.

The program still follows the provincial curriculum, said Bonnycastle. The difference is, “We don’t pressure kids to do anything they don’t want to do.”

Windsor House began in North Vancouver and operated for three decades as a publicly-funded alternate program of the North Vancouver School District. But when the North Vancouver school district opted to merge its alternate programs to save money in 2010, parents at Windsor House balked.

Rather than lose the program, the school struck an unusual deal with the Gulf Islands School District to continue the program under the auspices of that school district.

Eight years later, however, Gulf Islands school administrators say they can no longer financially support the program and are preparing to cut it adrift.

The decision to axe the program – which will be formally voted on at a meeting May 13 – was made because of financial pressures, said Rob Pingle, chair of the Gulf Islands Board of Education.

The issue was never a philosophical difference, said Pingle. Parents on the Gulf Islands have always been supportive of the program, he said.

About 210 students from across the Lower Mainland attend Windsor House. Between 2011 and 2016, the school operated out of the North Vancouver School District’s Lucas Centre, renting the space for $150,000 a year. But when the lease expired in 2016, the program found itself without a home. Currently the school operates out of a rented church property in North Vancouver, while other students shuttle between a theatre space on Granville Island or participate in various field trips to libraries, arts centres and farms.

But when the program clocked up a deficit of $570,000 over the last two years, trustees had to reconsider, said Pingle.

At a meeting held to discuss the issue earlier this month, “We heard a lot of emotion, a lot of grieving,” he said.

“Obviously you can’t make someone happy when you’re telling them you’re closing something that they love.”

So far, no other public school district is signing up to take the program on, leaving the future of Windsor House in doubt.

Bonnycastle said families whose kids attend Windsor House don’t have the money to pay for private school.

“I don’t think being a private school is an option,” she said.

If no other public school district can be found to take on the program, “I know a lot of families are looking into home schooling their kids,” said Bonnycastle. “Everybody’s just pretty devastated.”