Words & Photos by: Julia Brucculieri
When most people think about high school, building skateboards probably isn’t the first (or second or even third) thing that comes to mind. But teachers Craig Morrison and Lauren Hortie are changing that through their work with Oasis Skateboard Factory, an alternative high school program based in a Toronto community centre.
The OSF program — “the world’s first skateboard design high school,” Morrison notes — launched just over a decade ago, after he pitched the idea to the Toronto District School Board. At the time, Morrison was teaching with the Arts and Social Change program, where he introduced a skateboard design component in his classroom.
“We were making skateboards and we were like, This is great. These skateboards are a vehicle for the students’ cool street art graphics,” Morrison said.
After the success of his pilot project, Morrison was confident that skateboards were a great tool for getting youth — especially those identified as “at-risk” within their communities — engaged with their education. He was right. The program got the support it needed and is now in its 11th year.
You might be asking how, exactly, does a skateboard design high school work. As Morrison and Hortie, who’s been with the program for about seven years, explained, it’s largely about blending multiple facets of design with a good experience.
“We’re designing skateboards, but we designed a school, a user-experience here,” Morrison said, “[The] experience gives the opportunity for these youths to gain credits, graduate high school and develop a portfolio that’s going to get them into post-secondary or work after here.”
Like traditional high school, students at OSF aim to complete four credits per semester. What makes OSF unique — aside from the skateboards and teen-friendly 10:30am start time — is that is doesn’t deliver those credits through separate periods. Instead, students work on projects throughout the year involving everything from building their own skateboard brands to making the physical boards and developing supportive marketing materials.
Students also get to collaborate with artists, like Chief Lady Bird and Aura, and businesses in the community, like Roarockit Skateboard Company, giving them face-to-face interaction with professionals and solid real world experience — something that was extremely important to Morrison and Hortie.
“The fact that there’s a division between school and the real world is something we’re really pushing against in this program,” Morrison said, also stating that the community is a huge part of what makes OSF work.
Enrolment in OSF is open to students between the ages of 16 and 21. As Hortie noted, prospective students aren’t required to be “the most incredible artists,” nor do they need to be avid skateboarders. They just need to be interested in what OSF is teaching. (And if the typical over-90 percent program completion rate says anything, it’s that kids are definitely interested).
“We get students where [we’ll ask], ‘If you don’t come to this program, what would you be doing?’ And the answer is, ‘Not school.’” Hortie said, “Those are the kids we try to catch.”
When asked what the future of OSF holds, Morrison was quick to express a desire for “upping the game.”
“We’ll do a project that seems hard to top, but we try to top it,” he said. “What I hope for the next 10 years is that we get more and more high-profile community collaborators to approach us and help us do things we’ve never done before.”