Court shut down former ‘learning pod’ in February for violating rules
The Niagara Alternative Learning Alliance will be restarting operations in the old Virgil school on Four Mile Creek Road after taking steps to become a registered private school with the Ministry of Education.
The private school will begin operation on April 4, co-founder Monica McCourt said in an interview Wednesday.
The school was shut down by the ministry in February for operating as a private school while claiming to be a “learning pod” and citing health and safety concerns related to the pandemic.
The ministry received a temporary injunction that closed the school after The Lake Report published a series of stories about the self-described learning pod, its refusal to follow provincial rules during the pandemic and its lack of accreditation as a child care or school facility.
The ministry confirmed McCourt has now submitted the necessary paperwork to operate a private school.
The education ministry will conduct inspections of the school to verify it is meeting the requirements of a private school and will carry out inspections of the facility and of teachers as necessary.
McCourt told The Lake Report she is working “directly with the Ministry of Education myself to ensure that the operations do meet every single requirement set out by them.”
Co-founder Lori Davidson is no longer involved in the school project, she said.
“I took over communication and began working with the ministry instead of against them,” McCourt said.
She plans to continue to work closely with the ministry to ensure the school meets and exceeds provincial standards.
“I don’t want it to be closed down again,” she said.
McCourt said she is looking forward to getting the school back on its feet and rebuilding its reputation.
“We’re just kind of taking it slow for the first couple months to really build back trust from the community, because I feel like it didn’t start out how it should have,” she said.
Media attention prompted negative criticism of the alliance, but “it was really something that was our own fault, too. I am aware of that,” she said.
“We’ve built back better now and were just really focused on giving the kids a nice place to come.”
Many of the same teachers are coming back to help, she said, and many of the students are returning to traditional schools as pandemic restrictions get lifted across the province.
McCourt said the alliance is an alternative to traditional schooling and not a homeschooling community.
“Alternative schooling has been around for decades. A lot of people are just choosing different styles of education for their kids,” she said.
“And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
The school is equipped with state-of-the-art items, like virtual reality headsets, to give kids a hands-on education with changing technology, she said.
She is also excited to get a community garden started and will be teaching traditional school subjects as outlined by the ministry.
McCourt said she is striving to make sure the school is run appropriately and the educators are well-equipped for the work.
Everyone also has to pass a criminal background check to be involved, she said.
The school will be considered a non-inspected private school, which simply means it will not provide credit courses toward an Ontario secondary school diploma.
Students will have to attend traditional high schools after their education at the Learning Alliance, which is the case with many private schools.
In order to teach at a private school, an educator does not need to have a degree in education, McCourt said, but she noted some of her educators do and most of them have degrees in the various other subjects they will be teaching.
While private schools are not required to have their children take standardized testing, the Learning Alliance is well-equipped with documents from the education ministry to know exactly what level a child’s education should be at depending on their age.
“We’re working with the Ministry of Education and we do assessments to see where (the kids) are and then work with them to help them better their skills in certain areas,” she said.
“I follow the Ministry of Education guidelines for things like that, because we want to make sure that children are successful.”
She said the period of getting shut down by the ministry turned out to be a learning experience.
“I learned a lot going through it and I feel good,” McCourt said.
“I’m kind of happy that I’ve had this time to regroup and make sure everything is running as it should be.”
In working with the ministry, McCourt said she has realized she shares its purpose of wanting the best for children.
“The ministry isn’t there to try and stop you from doing things,” she said.
“They’re there to protect the children and that’s their job. Fighting with them and not listening and just trying to protest them is not the way to do it.”
“The (ministry) is there to protect kids and we should be thankful they are.”
McCourt said she had been given poor legal advice and was led to believe that the school would not be shut down for operating outside of the regulations of the ministry.
Despite its tumultuous beginning, the school was never meant to be anything more than a viable education alternative, McCourt said, adding all she wants is to provide a good alternative to traditional schooling and see her students succeed in life.
She said she will also be submitting quarterly data about the demographics of those enrolled in her school to the ministry, as required under ministry regulations.