Skateboard factory churning out an educated lot

Toronto alternative school making a difference for at-risk youth

Illustration

Call it a shift change.

In reference to the Toronto District School Board’s Oasis Skateboard Factory, that could mean a shift away from traditional teaching methods; you know, where students move from classroom to classroom, lining up in rows of desks and taking notes until their hands begin to cramp.

Craig Morrison views it differently. In his classroom, showing up for class is like showing up for work. There are business plans and professional deadlines, and while the “3 Rs” model of education still rings true, there is a heavy emphasis on client satisfaction and career opportunity.

“We see coming to school daily as sort of working a shift with us,” Morrison says. “We don’t expect that every student who graduates from here is going to run their own skateboard company but they are learning creative entrepreneurial skills that they can apply to any business or any job situation. I think our students are really prepared for the modern work world.”

In the shadows of the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD), Morrison’s classroom is just a blip on the education radar that can easily be missed. It’s tucked in a small corner just south of the Scadding Court Community Centre near Dundas and Bathurst streets. The skatepark outside isn’t one that would draw out-of-town enthusiasts to its rails and jumps, but the work produced inside has gotten some notice. The students have collaborated with international designers and renowned creative artists, and even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has visited the studio.

Still, those accolades and achievements can’t compare to the difference this school makes in the lives of its students.

It’s early April, late in the afternoon, and Julia Saint Amour is in clean-up mode. She stops to consider the classroom she’s in. “I was in a different school before and failing,” she says. “I dropped out of school…was getting into some miscreant stuff. Then my friend said, ‘You should come to Oasis. You’re artsy. It would be good for you.’” She’s now looking forward to graduating high school in June. “I find myself doing something with my life I like compared to where I was before, getting into bad shit. I love it here. It’s like home…it’s like family. It means the world to me.”

Johnny Bartlett’s story isn’t so different.

“If it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t be passing high school. I would have dropped out by now,” he says. Instead, he’s been accepted into Seneca College’s Art Fundamentals program in the fall.

Morrison says it’s not uncommon for Oasis Skateboard Factory’s graduates to get into their first choice of college or university, a feat he feels should be recognized, especially considering where some of these students are coming from. “Some were the first in their families to graduate high school, let alone go beyond.”

The Oasis Skateboard Factory (oasisskateboardfactory.blogspot.ca) is part of the larger Oasis Alternative School, initially designed as a program for at-risk youth. Students are often the square pegs who don’t fit the round holes that make up most of the places familiar in mainstream education. Morrison, who leads the group with fellow teachers Lauren Hortie and Sarah Lewis, fits that description as well.

“My whole career has been built around those types of students.” Initially, he was inspired by the innovations in board building by Roarockit Skateboard Company and introduced skateboards into his art curriculum as a way to further engage students, but the idea continued to bud. He saw an opportunity to take it further. He pitched his proposal to the higher-ups at Oasis, then to the school board. He foresaw the school as part of the greater inner city arts community, and with a classroom adjacent to the Dunbat Skatepark, he saw a way students could earn all the credits they need for high school through the lens of skateboard and street culture.

Its beginnings were maybe somewhat stereotypical. “Picture me and 15 dudes; guys you could imagine would be attracted to this.” But as its popularity grew, the program expanded and the skateboard factory’s roots dug deeper into the soil. It now takes 26 students a semester, and diversity ranks high in the school’s agenda.

“We have kids who are typical skateboard dudes, girls into skateboarding, we have graffiti artists and tattoo artists…some kids are into writing. When we put them together in a team, we can do a lot.”

Gender diversity—half of those students accepted into the program are female—is a part of that success. There is no quota per se, “but it’s something we feel committed to. We’re committed to maximum diversity in the classroom.” It’s what the business world should look like, he says, so it’s something students should come to expect. “And we feel with maximum diversity, we can solve any design problem that comes our way in a really interesting way.”

When it comes to classroom work, that “business world” credence weighs heavily in the foundation of the school’s curriculum.

“Every project is a real-world project,” Morrison says. “We never do an essay that’s just marked then shredded afterward. If you do writing, it’s for a publication or it’s for marketing material, or it’s for a published zine or skateboard publication. Everything we do, we do in collaboration with professionals in the real world. They may be in a meeting with a whole range of people who are often much older, but they can see themselves being in the industries.”

There are still some people who view skateboarding as a waste of time or a toy, but they don’t realize it’s a multi-million dollar industry, Morrison says. His students can see that.

“We may have a unique arts program that engages kids, but we do art as entrepreneurship.”

“It’s a business program we’ve built into it. They are building their own brands, learning how to run a business. We have a lot of pop-up shops, we sell everything we make and we get hired by clients to do jobs for them. In that way, they are learning how to work with clients…and important things like being on time, doing high quality work, and making sure a job is done in a way that creates the next job. Every day they get marked on professionalism…that’s being on time and on task, meeting daily goals and getting the basic learning skills you don’t normally see marked on a report card.”

It’s a successful business plan that has generated even more opportunities for Oasis.

“We make skateboards…that’s the core of what we do. But we also do other things for people” The students have designed T-shirts for a local taco shop, mini boards for a local hotel, and other products for people who appreciate their street art model.

“We have a chart in the classroom on the local projects we’re working on and it ranges from a barbecue restaurant that needs T-shirts or art for a local coffee shop where the owners were skaters when they were younger. Someone may want a skateboard with their company logo on it. We’ve had a company ask us to design buttons to advertise their business. It’s not only business interaction but also a level of career mentorship.”

Morrison says the fact that they are now sought out has allowed them to carefully consider who they want to do business with.

“We have a strong commitment to social justice in our classroom. We often talk about who you want to work with…a big corporation that doesn’t pay its workers well or with a small coffee shop that deals in a direct trade model. They are meeting other young people in these jobs and they start to see themselves having a place in the working world.”

He says what the students are learning doesn’t mean they are limiting themselves to a future in skateboard culture.

“They are learning that they can do anything…they just need to be passionate.” The school could have been led by a teacher who was into cooking, setting the kids up to work in a restaurant or food cart. It’s just about getting the students to buy in, and to show up ready to work each day.

Morrison and his colleagues have also found ways to adapt traditional studies into the school curriculum. History might focus on local Toronto icons. And Native Studies is part of the program now, whether it’s examining how native art can be integrated into a product in collaboration with that community or how up-cycling of old skateboards might correspond with First Nations practices.

“We’re collaborating with students in Nunavut right now.” A planned trip there to work on a mural was scrapped when there was a fire in the community, but some correspondence and collaboration on other projects have continued. One project included a skateboard designed for former Prime Minister Paul Martin; a supporter of aboriginal issues who needed a gift for an event. Other government leaders who have learned of their work have had boards designed for them as well, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped by the factory—before being elected leader of the country— and picked up a board as well.

Another project involved the prototype and design of a number of original boards to support Skateistan (www. skateistan.org)—a fundraising project to support people in Afghanistan.

Skateistan believes that the community-building effects of skateboarding are especially powerful in Afghanistan, which has experienced over 30 years of ongoing conflict and social dislocation. Operating as an Afghan NGO, Skateistan builds trust among youth and develops their confidence, leadership, and life skills. “The students held a fundraiser with local skate shop Longboard Living and were able to send money to Afghanistan. They learned that to be successful, you need to help others be successful.

Closer to home, work from the students can be found in several neighbouring businesses.

“This semester, there are seven events we are participating in. We started at the Gladstone Hotel where every student is matched with a professional artist… the drummer for Sloan was one of the artists involved,” Morrison says. “It was a great career project where they got to meet a lot of people in the industry.” Also, every piece created was sold. Another project involved art for a local coffee shop, where coffee was used to stain the boards. Some of the work still hangs in there.

“I have always taught in downtown Toronto where basically, the city is our classroom. If there is something we need, we know where to find it. We may need to laser etch something over at OCAD or we made need to find remote materials to get something to market. Our school is all about community connection. We’ve all come to recognize the resources in the community and we work to connect people to that.”

Morrison says the school mission is built on four values; pillars that are the foundation of Oasis’ success:

Creativity—“That’s obvious in all the work we do.”

Social Responsibility— “We’re always investigating materials we are using and whether we are helping people in what we do.”

Professionalism—“We’re always trying to raise the bar and make sure everything we do is done professionally.”

Fun—“Fun is part of our mandate. It’s about celebrating together when we have success and inviting the public in on this. It may mean there are days when we stop work and we go into the skatepark. It’s like that old one-room school model where we spend all our time together.”

In as much as it all brings satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment to the students at Oasis Skateboard Factory, Morrison can’t help but feel the same way.

“People think you need to be a remarkable teacher to do this kind of stuff. I think it’s the opposite. I think every teacher in the province is working hard right now, but I enjoy this because I am really clear on designing tangible outcomes. We have something to show for that. For the students, it can be about identity and the students get a strong identity here. We prove that.”

About Bill Hodgins
Bill Hodgins is a Peterborough-based communications specialist, a former journalist and a father of three.

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