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Montreal Families

A school that shoots for the stars

The beauty of a shooting star is the streak of light that it leaves behind it as it soars across the sky, distinguishing itself from all the other stars dotting the nighttime canvas. It is this spirit of individual achievement that inspired a small French-language alternative school in N.D.G. to name itself L’Étoile Filante, which is the French term for shooting star.

L’Étoile Filante, housed in a small annex to l’École Notre-Dame-de-Grâce near Girouard Park in N.D.G., is part of the Commission scolaire de Montreal. It was created in 1982 when a group of parents came up with the idea of a school that would focus on and encourage each child’s unique strengths.

“We value global success, meaning we place as much importance on personal and social objectives as we do on academic ones,” says Mireille Gauthier, vice-principal of the school. “We don’t want children to just come to school, we want them to live school.”

Designated as “alternative” by the Ministry of Education means that the school has established its own educational vision while still incorporating all the educational objectives set out by
the government.

At l’Etoile Filante, this alternative vision translates into an emphasis on autonomy, collaboration, creativity and personal responsibility. Students are expected to succeed based on objectives that they set for themselves and by helping one another.

The school puts into practice its alternative approach in several ways, including size. There are only 140 students and five full-time teachers. (The school is run by the administration of l’Ecole Notre-Dame-de-Grâce; however, it has its own vice-principal and follows its own pedagogy.)

From its inception, part of the school philosophy has been to eliminate the competitive spirit that characterizes most learning, so it has set aside standardized testing, rote learning and the norms of grading. In fact, when the Quebec government decided to revert back to percentage grades on report cards last year, the school rallied against the proposal and has kept a report card that uses numbers and letters.

The school also puts into practice cycle classrooms, which combine students from two grades rather than just one. “We teach children to be the primary actor in their learning and their development and make them discover that they have real power to affect the world around them,” Gauthier says.

The school requires parents to volunteer a minimum of 20 hours a year. “It lets you know what is going on at the school and in your child’s classroom, and as a teacher myself I know the importance of that,” says Catherine Rendell-Green, whose two children attend the school.

She admits that for parents with a tight schedule, the school might not be a suitable choice, but adds that parents can volunteer in a variety of ways, from contributing to the school website to tutoring.

Parent involvement is also encouraged at the curriculum level. One afternoon a week is reserved for workshops. Students, teachers and parents can volunteer to organize an activity or a presentation to share their interests and skills.

Rendell-Green says this creates a very strong school community and is one of the main reasons she chose to send her children there. After visiting several French-language elementary schools in her neighbourhood, she was swayed by the warm atmosphere at l’Etoile Filante and notes that it is not just the children who become a part of the school, but the entire family.

The idea of building a community and encouraging collaboration among students is reflected in the school’s mentoring program where Grade 6 and Grade 1 students are paired. The students meet a few times a week so that the older ones can give guidance, direction and advice to their young mentorees. By acting as role models, older students develop a greater sense of responsibility; while it seems to help the younger children adjust to school life.

But just as collaboration is at the core of the school’s mission, so is autonomy, and learning takes place in a highly self-directed environment. This is best reflected in the school’s homework policy. Students are given an hour a day, at school, to complete their homework for the week. If they manage their time poorly, then they will be forced to bring home their work on the weekend to complete it.

“They learn to work for themselves and not talk to friends during that time. They really focus,” Rendell-Green says.

Some parents may fear that the freedom given to students means they won’t learn enough to succeed later on at the high school or CEGEP level. But Rendell-Green says this is not the case. “Many students have gone on to private schools. There is a high success rate. [Alternative schools and traditional schools] are two roads that lead to the same place.”

For more information, visit the school’s website at www.csdm.qc.ca/etoile-filante. The school will be holding an open house at the beginning of October.
 

How to find an alternative school

Curious about what makes a school “alternative”? Wondering if there is an alternative school in your area? If so, check out the Réseau des écoles publiques alternatives du Québec at www.repaq.qc.ca.

This site discusses the history of the alternative school movement in Quebec, (which dates back more than 30 years) and offers a list of alternative public schools across the province, including addresses and websites.

Under the section “Notre bibliothèque virtuelle,” visitors can find a wealth of materials describing the philosophies and functioning of alternative schools. (Note that all the material is in French.)

The REPAQ helps promote alternative education as well as helping connect parents, teachers and principals of such schools by sponsoring workshops and presentations. A list of upcoming events can be found on the website.

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