From Homeschooling to Special Education Classrooms: A snapshot of alternative learning in Ontario

Written by Emma Moeck

What does a school day look like? For Heather and Jake Zwart, it meant getting their sons started on their Scholastic worksheets bright and early in the morning, right when their brains were most fresh. This way, the rest of the day could be spent doing more hands-on activities— and for a rural Ontario family with active children, this meant spending a good chunk of the day outside in the fresh air. Experimenting with throwing a ball could be a way to learn how physics works in action, or helping to conduct engine repairs could be a way to experiment with engineering. Jake recounts how in the winter the boys would rush to the frozen-over pond in the morning to enjoy ice skating, swapping out their usual morning routine and going through their bookwork later in the day. 

Absent from school life were buses and recesses, standardized tests and cafeterias— the many trappings of a standard Ontario public school that are so often associated with education. Like thousands of other families in the province, the Zwarts chose to homeschool their children, graduating all four sons out of high school. Heather says that homeschooling gave her family freedom: the freedom and the flexibility to learn things in a way that reflected their values, at a pace that felt right for their children. Her husband Jake agrees, adding that homeschooling gave them the opportunity to feel closer to their children and keep their family from being separated.

“I think some parents, when they have children, they say in the early years I enjoy being around my children, it just seems so natural,” Jake says. “And in the early years, all parents are the primary teachers of their children prior to going to school and they just enjoy that so much. They say why stop when school age starts? Why not just continue that relationship we’ve had?”

Whether loved, discouraged, or simply not well-understood, homeschooling has always been a contentious issue in the world of education. It is a practice, however, that is deeply tied to the philosophy of child-led, alternative learning: a philosophy that can take many forms, whether through homeschooling, privately owned alternative schools, or publicly funded alternative programs and courses. For the families who embrace this form of education, it can be a life-changing experience that leads to a passion for education advocacy, and a sense of belonging in a tight-knit community. For Heather and Jake, it was an experience they would happily repeat, and a lifestyle they are continuing to support through their volunteer work with the Ontario Christian Home Educators Connection (OCHEC).

There are no official statistics on how many families in Ontario homeschool, although organizations like the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) estimate that the number is about 200,000. That number is almost twice as high as it was a year ago, after the COVID-19 pandemic struck and caused widespread school closures that led many families to rethink traditional schooling. HSLDA president Peter Stock says that several of these families have reached out to his organization and others because they have fallen in love with homeschooling and want to continue- a realization that Stock and his wife had also come to years ago.

“Now we’re hearing from them that they’re enjoying it so much they tend to want to continue for the long term,” Stock says. “So that’s very encouraging to us to receive not only this growth temporarily from people trying, but many, many, many of those folks are going to stick with it for the long term. So we’re very excited about that.”

Different families, different approaches

“It’s about empowerment, it’s about moving away from oppressive types of situations, and that’s I guess the easiest way to think about it.”

Dr. Carlo Ricci

There is no one-size-fits-all model of homeschooling. Some follow a more traditional approach with a strict curriculum, while others prefer the freedom that comes from more radical approaches like unschooling. Many families fall in the middle— like Heather and Jake, who are advocates for using a mixture of theory and practical experience. For all the diversity in approach, there is also diversity in the reasons families might choose alternative learning, a point that unschooling author and parent Dr. Carlo Ricci underscores. 

“Some people know before their children are born that homeschooling for example, it’s something they want to do, or they send their children to an alternative school,” Ricci says. “For others it’s for personal reasons. Sometimes the bullying in the school, other types of negative influences within the confines of the school like drugs, alcohol, hazing. Sometimes it’s that the children are physically not well because of their school experience, and so they’re looking for something to help them.”

For Ricci, spreading awareness about alternative learning to questioning families is his life’s work. A professor at Nipissing University, he founded the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, and has also written and edited more than 12 books. Those books have titles like The willed curriculum, unschooling, and self-direction: What do love, trust, respect, care, and compassion have to do with learning? and Natural born learners: Unschooling and autonomy in education– all testament to his passion for a child-first pedology.

Ricci is also familiar with feeling physically unwell in traditional classrooms, something which he says hits close to home. Since his childhood he found classrooms were always an uncomfortable environment for him, but it took years of research and reading to pinpoint what exactly was causing that discomfort. 

“I was never a fan of schooling myself,” he says. “And so my body always knew that I felt uncomfortable when I went into those spaces and places but I guess my mind didn’t really figure out why I felt so uncomfortable in those places.”

Ricci says that researching the history of schooling is what finally made that negative feeling click: he tells me that modern public schools were based on a model introduced in Prussia, which he says sought to gain control over “bodies, minds and spirits” rather than push for freedom and liberation. He mentions that Egerton Ryerson pushed for this system in Canada, and that there are layers of oppression that the current school system is built up on. To him the school system is still an oppressive place, and this personal realization led to Ricci gaining a passion for unschooling. 

“So there’s clearly a dark side to schooling, and the shameful thing is that it doesn’t have to be that way,” he says. “There are ways to learn that are much friendlier, gentler, more loving, more peaceful. You don’t need tests and bells and whistles and externally imposed curriculum, and all of the things that are a part of schooling, in order to have learning.” 

Ricci also says that in his research he found a connection between poor mental health and traditional schooling. He says that during the school year suicides go up, children take more prescription medication, and child abuse increases during report card season—  all reasons he cites for choosing to educate his own two daughters at home. When he took the plunge into practicing home education himself, he discovered an approach called willed learning, an even further step away from the traditional classroom environment. Willed learning— which Ricci also refers to as unschooling— is an approach rooted in a child-centered pedagogy that gives the child a more radical control over their education. 

“With willed learning, it’s up to the individual, him or herself to decide what to learn, when to learn, where to learn, for how long, and so on,” Ricci says. “It’s about empowerment, it’s about moving away from oppressive types of situations, and that’s I guess the easiest way to think about it.”

Ricci frequently refers to this type of learning as a form of empowerment. There are no restrictions, and there is even the freedom to move back and forth from public school or other types of more structured education at any time. In fact, both of his daughters are now enrolled in public school, a decision he says they made themselves and that they always had the option to choose. Ricci describes that freedom as the driving force behind willed learning and what separates it from the mainstream education system. At the core of this philosophy is the idea that children are natural learners who can learn without the “bells and whistles” of an external curriculum, an idea that Ricci has explained in many of his books and journals.

“So it’s not that people can’t take courses or can’t learn from somebody else, or go somewhere to learn something— the point is that it’s up to them,” Ricci says. “So they can learn by watching YouTube videos, they can learn on their own by fiddling with it, they can learn by asking people. But the learner needs to be empowered and make that determination for him or herself.”

For Heather and Jake, homeschooling entered the conversation after they had their first child. Though they had both gone through the public school system themselves, they were unsure whether they wanted to put their own children through that same system.

“We really didn’t want to see the breakup of the family, the separation, the isolation of people from one to another,” Heather says.

It was after being directed by a pastor to a homeschooling conference that Heather and Jake decided homeschooling was something they wanted to try. Heather says that there was a moment in that conference when something clicked, and she turned to her husband knowing that this was going to be the right path for their family. Now, they have graduated four sons, who have gone on to pursue both post-secondary education and entrepreneurship opportunities.

“That speaker was able to give us a vision for homeschooling, and we looked at each other and said, that is it. That’s what we want to do,” Heather says. “It was called an experiment. It was a great experiment. It was called life, it’s been a good life. That’s our experience.”

When asked what part of that talk convinced them to homeschool, Heather says that it was a combination of things. She points out that being able to keep the family together and being able to raise their children in an environment affirming of their Christian faith was important to her

“I think it was the discussion about the impact that a family has in family relationships with children,” Heather says. “And passing on your faith, it’s hard to do it after hours. Whereas you have the opportunity when you’re homeschooling to do it all day long, and in a gentle way.”

Jake also shares that they were concerned about some of the aspects of public school curriculum, and whether or not they would fall in line with the values they wanted to pass on to their children. He says that this is a motivation for many Christian parents to choose homeschooling— something which he says does not make the children intolerant, since homeschooling also provides many different opportunities for families to connect with the larger community.

“So if you look at sort of the big questions of life, where do I come from? Where am I going? What is my purpose in life? Every child answers that based on what they’re taught,” Jake says. “And parents from a Christian perspective will teach it quite differently than the school system that builds itself up as neutral, but is really a secular humanism institution.” 

Homeschooling also gave Jake and Heather the chance to follow their own philosophy towards education. To describe what that philosophy looks like, Jake takes out a piece of paper and draws a graph with one axis labelled “discipline” and the other “empathy”. As a self-proclaimed math-minded person and an engineer, he says that drawing it out helps him to visualize it.

“I think to do a good job educating, you need to have a rapport with the child,” Jake says. “The best way of having that rapport is with a high discipline and high empathy environment. The child has to know that you care for them, that you’re there for them. But the child also has to know in many areas, that in some areas you have to parent.”

Another aspect of homeschooling that Heather and Jake enjoyed was being able to teach at a pace that was right for their children, something that they believe is much easier to do in a home environment than in a traditional classroom. Jake explains that in a typical public school class with over twenty students, the teacher has to teach to the majority of the class— but that might leave out a child who learns differently or is struggling with a certain concept.

“You can tailor it. You can ask questions. Where are you having trouble with this math thing? What concept do you not understand? Maybe try explaining it in a different way,” Jake says. “And you try explaining in it three or four or five different ways until the child says, oh, now I get it.”

This ability to teach in more flexible ways is something that also stands out to HSLDA President Stock, and something he says he is enjoying while he continues to homeschool his children. That flexible learning might mean taking more time to do a particular grade or subject, or moving at a faster pace with other subjects. This is one of the reasons he is hesitant to say that any of his children are in a fixed grade— instead he estimates where they are academically, describing grades as “high school level” or “grade six-ish”. 

“We can structure that pace of learning, and whatever subject at the pace the child needs to learn the subject adequately before they move on,” Stock says. “And in some subjects, they move on very quickly. And other subjects, we may take a lot more time if they’re struggling with the concept in math or something.”

For Stock and his family, homeschooling first entered the picture when their first child was five years old. It was on a trial basis— they planned on homeschooling for a year to see how it worked for them, and then continuing on for another year if it was a good fit. Stock says that it was never meant to be a long term commitment, but that after seeing how well their children were progressing academically they were ready for the long haul.

Now, Stock and his wife have had one child graduate, are teaching one child at a high school level, and have three children around grade six. Stock says they plan on sticking with homeschooling until all their children graduate: it is a lifestyle that fits their family well, and he says that spending more time with his children is enough of a reason for him to continue. 

“We’ve enjoyed watching our kids grow, spending the time with them,” Stock says. “We do a lot of activities that you know, kids may not be able to enjoy as much when they’re in a structured school environment with a structured school day.”

Advocacy and the power of the conference

“It allows us to have a vision that our grandchildren would be able to be homeschooled too. And that’s encouraging for us, and for our children.”

Heather Zwart

Homeschooling is an individual choice and often a challenging one, but families are not alone— organizations like OCHEC, the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents (OFTP), and the HSLDA help build up a strong community for families to access. All of these organizations are built on volunteers and a spirit of advocacy, providing information on everything from curriculum to community support. For Heather and Jake, taking part in this advocacy is a central part of their homeschooling journey. Even though their children are now adults, the couple continues to volunteer for OCHEC, citing the strong community around homeschooling as something that has always encouraged them.

A big part of that community is the built on conferences. Organizations like OCHEC regularly host conferences to give out resources and give families the opportunity to connect with other homeschoolers in their community, and to discuss alternative learning approaches and pedagogies. While the resources given out fill a practical need, Heather points out that simply seeing that thousands of other families are following the same lifestyle is a motivator to keep going. 

“When we have our annual conference there’s these 1200 people all together, and the energy in such an environment is wonderful,” Heather says. “And these people are interconnecting with each other, networking, finding out who’s near them. And what are you using, and the vendors are helping them with their curriculum. It’s a beautiful time.”

In her experience attending conferences and volunteering for OCHEC, one thing that Heather says has stood out to her is the strong community of support among homeschooling families. She explains that families were always willing to help one another in times of need, and often shared teaching responsibilities to give the children a chance to socialize and give parents a much needed break. When Heather had to run errands or go to an important appointment, she had a network of other mothers who would teach her kids for the day to take the pressure off of her— a tremendous relief, she says. 

“If you’re having an operation or something, you know, you have various appointments that day, another family will take over,” Heather says. “And that is something that you don’t necessarily experience in other venues as quickly as you do in homeschooling, because you really are there to support one another.”

Her husband Jake adds that aside from the strong sense of community, volunteering for OCHEC gave the couple a chance to participate in other forms of advocacy. This included supporting the legal rights of homeschoolers by making sure that families were aware of the laws, and by working closely with other organizations like the OFTP. All in all, the experience gave Jake and Heather a hope that homeschooling would continue to flourish in Ontario, something which Heather says makes them optimistic for the future of their own children. 

“It was just helping our goals to be able to be reached because it’s advocacy towards allowing homeschooling to continue in Ontario and increasing the community of homeschoolers in Ontario, which is good all around,” Heather says. “It allows us to have a vision that our grandchildren would be able to be homeschooled too. And that’s encouraging for us, and for our children.”

Heather is not alone in this vision: it is also a vision that Ricci shares. While writing books about alternative learning is one way that Ricci tries to spread awareness, he is also a volunteer for the OFTP— an organization that, much like OCHEC, provides support to homeschooling parents across the province. While members of the OFTP range across a broad spectrum of homeschooling styles and not all follow the unschooling philosophy that Ricci is passionate about, he says that volunteering has given him the opportunity to counsel many families on their options. 

“I think one of the best ways to sort of advocate for change is to, as John Holt says, make a hole in the fence to allow anyone who wants to escape to escape,” Ricci says. “So I volunteer for the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents as well, where I field hundreds and hundreds of calls a year.” 

Through those phone calls, Ricci has had the chance to help many families decide whether or not homeschooling is the right option for them, and has directed them towards the many different resources that the OFTP provides. Ricci describes many of the parents who call him as “desperate” for an option outside mainstream schools, sometimes dealing with serious issues or struggling to find a place where their children fit in. While homeschooling is not the only option for alternative learning, Ricci says that it is an option that many wind up choosing. 

“This is the type of call that I get. They’ve tried everything. They’ve done everything that the school told them to do, but their children are still not doing well,” he says. “And so they want to try something different and they do. And they realize that their child is happier, healthier, and that their children are beginning to heal.”

Being part of that healing is important to Ricci, and he points out that from the advocacy of organizations like the OFTP more families are aware of alternative learning options than ever before. This is a sentiment echoed by HSLDA president Stock, who says that his own experience working for the fund and attending global conferences has painted a picture of just how many families are homeschooling across the world. 

“The phenomenon of home education is taking off everywhere from, you know, remote African villages to places like Singapore and in South Korea Japan, in the Philippines. Russia was incredible- there are probably as many homeschoolers in Russia as there are in Canada,” Stock says. “That’s just in the last few years, it’s grown from a very small number to well over 100,000  just in a few short years.”

For Stock and others who uphold homeschooling as a positive force in the world of education, those figures are very encouraging. He also points out that homeschooling advocacy does not only benefit the families who are passionate about the lifestyle. He says that putting a child through school comes at cost to the government, and that less children in public schools save the government thousands of dollars a year. This part of the advocacy may not be intentional, but Stock says that it makes him more confident that homeschooling will continue to be protected legally. 

“So, you know, if this is a valid form of education, which we believe it is, and the academic research backs that up, then this is great for everybody. It’s a win-win,” Stock says. “For the kids, first of all, who are getting a good education and it’s a win for the government and the taxpayer by saving all this money that they can put into other priorities, like healthcare, let’s say. So home education is likely to stick around for those reasons.”

Navigating legal gray areas 

“…there’s sort of a level of unawareness of the law, and sometimes that leads to situations where an investigation has commenced.”

Peter Stock

Homeschooling is, by all rights, legal in Ontario. As the OFTP points out on its website, this is set in stone by the Education Act— Section 21(2) says that “…a person is excused from attendance at school if the person is receiving satisfactory instruction at home or elsewhere.” Advocacy is a big reason why this section of the Education Act exists: but if it is so clear cut, why do many homeschooling families still struggle against opposition from school boards or concerned social workers? Stock points out the trouble lies in the wording. After all, who decides what satisfactory instruction is? 

Organizations like the OFTP and the HSLDA are fighting to bring more clarity to the laws around homeschooling, and have had many successes over the years. In 2002, efforts by the OFTP led the Ontario government to issue a memorandum clarifying homeschooling families are legally considered to be providing a satisfactory education unless proven otherwise. That was an important distinction. Up until that point, school boards acted on unclear instructions and believed it was their job to investigate. 

Stock points out, however, that not all school board administrators are aware of the change. This leads to some families getting visited by social workers for investigations, or being told by an ill-informed principal that they are not allowed to withdraw their children from school in the middle of the year. Stock says these issues are commonplace, and they are exactly the types of legal problems that he helps resolve as a part of the HSLDA. 

“It’s not uncommon for a family to get a knock on the door from a social worker who says, ‘We got a complaint that your kids aren’t at school’,” he says. “Maybe a neighbor saw them playing out in the front yard in the morning when all the other kids were at school. Well, that was their recess from their homeschool, so they’re fully entitled to be playing in that yard.” 

Stock points out that this is not the fault of the social workers or the school boards themselves— they are, after all, required by law to investigate any complaints. However, it speaks to a larger issue of unawareness, one he hopes his organization is able to bring more light to. He says the legal defense association built a website,, that is specifically designed to answer any legal questions about homeschooling that families or educators may have. 

“We’ve actually had some school boards come and say, ‘Hey, we love your website, do you mind if we refer families to it so that they can get that kind of information?’,” he says. “We say, great.” 

There are other legal issues facing homeschoolers— issues that organizations like the OCHEC have been advocating against for years. One of these issues, according to Heather and Jake, was a proposal by the Ontario government to make being enrolled in a public school or having an OSSD a requirement for getting a driver’s license. This would have a negative impact on not only homeschooled students, but on students in private schools or other alternative schools. As Heather points out, these are not legally defined as schools in the same way that public schools are. 

“You can just imagine all of our sixteen-year old homeschoolers that had finished their schoolwork by noon and wanted to go out to work, and they wouldn’t be able to drive there,” Heather says. “It’s kind of bad.” 

Due to extensive talks between the OCHEC and the provincial government, the proposed legislation was dropped— something Heather says was a major win for the homeschooling community, and proof that legal advocacy works when it comes to protecting the rights of families. This is not the only legal issue that OCHEC fought: Heather says they also stepped in when a group of teachers started to push for homeschooling parents to need certification.

“This was their environment, right? That’s what they knew, that’s what worked in the public school system,” Heather says. “So they were starting up an organization to certify the parents, and they were getting new homeschoolers who thought this was a part of homeschooling. So we had some conversations with them, and clarified for them what homeschooling really was.” 

Heather says that a divided homeschooling community faces more trouble representing themselves to the government, and the concern was that the government would side with the educators pushing for certification to become a requirement. Just like with the driver’s license legislation, however, talks between homeschooling organizations and the government resulted in the issue being dropped entirely. 

The other issue that comes up frequently is funding, with some provinces and groups pushing for government funding to be more readily available for homeschooling families. While this sounds like an appealing option that might offset some costs, it has another side to it— Heather says the more funding homeschooling accepts, the more rights and freedoms they give up, and the more legal concerns they may face. Because of this she says she supports a fund-less homeschooling community, a value that OCHEC as an organization shares.

“During COVID, there’s been some government funding coming out, but with the government funding— as will be shown in Alberta and BC— come strings,” Heather says. “So Ontario is a fund-less homeschooling community, and we don’t seek funding. And we would like our families not to seek funding, not to be persuaded by government handouts.”

“Once we give away our freedoms for funding, it’s very hard to get them back.”

Facing the myths

“Those are I think the three big ones- can I get into school? You’re nasty people, and you’re not socialized. And really, it’s the other way around. We’re very- we try to grow up kids that society wants.”

Heather Zwart

Legal status and social acceptance are two different beasts, and while advocacy has fueled a greater awareness, Heather points out there is still a lot more work to do. When asked if she believes there are any myths about homeschooling, she laughs— she has heard all the standard criticisms for choosing to educate her own children, something she says most families in the community have to deal with. 

The biggest one, Heather says, is that homeschooled children are not socialized and do not have the opportunity to build healthy relationships with other children. According to her, this tends to be the leading argument against homeschooling and one of the first criticisms that homeschooling parents will face from others. Addressing the concern, Heather says it is less a question of whether or not homeschooled children are socialized, but how the socialization differs. 

“So the question, do you socialize peer to peer and have all the peer pressure that is in the school system? Or do you socialize with all ages in the community, all ages in your family, all trades and services and professions,” she says. “Or do you just stay with your 12 year olds all day long?”

Heather mentions another major myth is that homeschooled children are not able to move on to post-secondary education. Her own children stand as proof that is not true, as all three have gone on to university— this was not always the case, however, so Heather says she understands why many people believe the misconception. When Heather and her husband first started homeschooling, she says it was difficult for students outside the public school system to move on to post-secondary. The minimum that is usually required is to do what is called a “Grade 13” year at a public school. In other words, an extra year of public school to qualify them.

Of course, there were other ways to get around the requirements. Heather explains that many homeschooled students would go to Athabasca University, an online school, to get around that requirement for their first year. They would then usually transfer to a brick and mortar school, a workaround that Heather says is even more applicable today as many classes and programs shift to online. 

While progress has been slow, Heather says the situation now is very different than it was years ago: in many cases, homeschooled students are able to move on to post-secondary directly without the added requirements. Many students may even have scholarships and bursaries available to fund their education— Heather says this in part happened when schools realized that the homeschooled applicants were performing well academically. 

“They said, you know what? These homeschool students are good. Let us put a little check box on the Ontario university application form that says I’ve been homeschooled,” Heather says. “And we tick that one off and we’ll give you other questions you can answer and a different way of applying. And so now you can go into post-secondary education, anyone that you want, and many of them have a special system for you to go in.” 

Heather points out that another common belief is that homeschooled children grow up into intolerant adults, something which she says is a misconception. She references how many homeschooled children take part in volunteer work or engage in other parts of the community as a part of their education, something which she asserts helps them become accepting members of society. While schooling her own sons, she says she always tried to instill an attitude of kindness, something which goes against the image she says many people may have of homeschooling families. 

“There’s a concept that homeschooling students are all social conservatives, and so they’re all racially intolerant and bigoted and just an intolerant group of people,” Heather says. “But studies will show that they are civic minded. They are kind, they involve themselves in charitable organizations. They are heavily involved in volunteering. They are not intolerant. They are actually trying to reach out to help to serve.”

The case for alternative learning in public schools

“There were some good times and some bad times, but most of the good times, they made us feel special. They didn’t make us feel different, but they did treat us differently in a good way.”

Michael Arindaeng

Of course, homeschooling is not the only place where alternative learning happens: as Ricci points out, there are many alternative schools that follow the same individualistic philosophy. He lists off a few that come to his mind—Sudbury Valley, the Albany Free School, Summer Hill, and some of the alternative schools that belong to the Toronto District Schoolboard (TDSB). Those TDSB schools are all publicly funded, presenting an interesting question: can public schools create spaces for alternative learning too? 

According to Karen Brown, Vice President for the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), they absolutely can. Despite this, she stresses that a set curriculum is something that she believes as important to public schools, as she says it creates a more level playing ground and encourages diversity. She also comments that when it comes to socialization, there is “no place like the classroom”. She does acknowledge, however, that many parents who have children with different needs may choose to homeschool. She says that public schools also have resources to meet those needs— and working as a special education teacher since 1993, Brown is passionate about making sure those resources are provided. 

“For students with special needs, I know many parents would have perhaps the option of homeschooling their children, and many do,” Brown says. “But then again, they have to get different supports and resources to provide that. And if that’s coming from the public system I think that’s something that we need to evaluate.”

Brown has worked in alternative classrooms in the school board, in a variety of different community and institutional settings. These classrooms are usually for children in unique circumstances or with complex needs, she says, and teachers will usually have a host of support staff who are able to help both the child and the family. 

“There might be a childcare worker that’s working with the teacher. There might be an occupational therapist that’s coming in to work on fine and gross motor skills so that the student is able to engage in writing on the computer,” Brown says. “There might be a speech and language pathologist that’s working because there has been some delay in the speech.” 

Brown says these alternative settings provide the intensive, holistic support that is needed for some children— but the main way that alternative learning takes place in public schools is through special education classrooms where students may also be integrated into mainstream classes.  These special education classes have been a part of the Canadian public school system for decades, and are only available to students who have a diagnosed learning disability and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). While this can be a gateway barrier to some, it can also lead to a very positive experience for some students who thrive with the smaller class sizes and still enjoy the experience of being at a public school. 

Michael Arindaeng, now a graduate of the Electrical Engineering Technician program at Durham College, was in special education classrooms since he was diagnosed with a learning disability in fourth grade. He says that the overall experience was a mix of positives and negatives, but that the flexibility the classrooms offered was one of the biggest benefits. This flexibility allowed him to work at things at a more individual pace, something which was possible because of the small class size. 

“In the separate class, the special class, it’s more you do your own thing at your own pace,” Arindaeng says. “And there’s still deadlines, but you can ask for help more and they’ll help you way more.” 

Arindaeng points out that he was in a class with only around five students, a far cry from the typical twenty or thirty in a traditional classroom. That class size meant that help was readily available, and it was easier to connect with classmates and forge stronger relationships.

“We were all grouped together, so we all became friends, and it was easier to teach,” he says. “The teacher was a special needs teacher, so they would go over stuff that would help us in the future, and more one on one stuff too.” 

Despite the positives of this close-knit environment, Arindaeng says his experience in the special education stream was largely mixed. He points out that there is still stigma towards special education in public schools, and that bullying did still take place in the classrooms themselves. Despite that, he says that his experience was mostly positive despite the negative moments, and attests that special education streams are an important part of the school system. 

“There were some good times and some bad times, but most of the good times, they made us feel special,” Arindaeng says. “They didn’t make us feel different, but they did treat us differently in a good way.” 

Arindaeng says schools should do more to spread awareness about special education classes, and to open up the opportunity to learn in alternative ways to more students. He points out that while he had the chance to learn in a smaller and more individualized classroom, many other students do not have the same opportunity, especially when they do not have an IEP or have difficulty proving they have a learning disability. Even more than that, he says that colleges need to have better support for students with different needs— while he was in college, he says that many supports completely disappeared. He also says part of improving the system should involve better communication and more resources letting students in both public schools and colleges know their options. 

“Definitely I think more advertising, and I guess more reaching out,” Arindaeng says. “It would help if you didn’t have to go to them. In high school, I was introduced already so it was warm and welcoming, but once I went into college I had to find out for myself. It just had a little bit more stress.” 

Towards the future

If the numbers are any indicator, alternative learning is likely around to stay, and as COVID-19 changes the way children learn this is made even more likely. From the special education classroom to homeschooling, strides have been made in providing better support and more resources— something which leaves many families hopeful. 

Heather and Jake share a vision of their children and grandchildren being able to homeschool, a vision which they say is only possible because of the continued advocacy to protect the legal rights of families. Heather says the future of homeschooling and alternative learning will not be built on heated arguments with public school boards and Ministry officials— instead, it needs to be built on understanding. That understanding, Heather says, is that alternative learning and home education is a part of schooling in Ontario like any public school is. 

“The right to home education is not just a right over the place of the education, but what is in the education. The testing , the process, the timing, the whole kitten caboodle,” Heather says. “So we recommend within the homeschooling structure, a constructive interaction with the officials of the Ministry of Education, not a destructive one or anything. Just we’re part of the schooling system. Just as the Education Act allows for.” 

A big thank you to…

Heather Zwart

Jake Zwart

Dr. Carlo Ricci

Michael Arindaeng

Karen Brown

Peter Stock

Professor Siobhan Moore

Professor Dan Rowe

Professor Steven May

…for making this project possible!

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