Oasis Skateboard Factory: the world’s first skateboard design high school
Another year of school is officially in session for students at the Oasis Skateboard Factory. But these teens aren’t sitting in rows with their noses jammed into textbooks; instead, they’re designing and producing skateboards with their own hands.
The Oasis Skateboard Factory is an alternative school program in the Toronto District School Board entering its ninth year. Since opening the school, founding teacher Craig Morrison has expanded the program to 25 students per semester with the help of Lauren Hortie, the second educator to join the OSF team. I spoke to Craig about the Oasis Skateboard Factory, which led to an interview with creative genius and former student Elizaveta Syssova who has taken her experience at the school to new heights. Check out both interviews below!
Tell us a little bit about OSF and what makes it different than a typical school?
I think Oasis Skateboard Factory is the world’s first skateboard design high school. One of our goals is really trying to break the stereotype of who a skater and creator is. Each semester we assemble a ragtag group of teenage misfits who have struggled in or dropped out of mainstream high school and offer them a school opportunity that is unlike school.
We do project-based learning; we’ll set up projects and within them cover all of the curriculum needed. The skateboard is such a great engagement tool. I can imagine other teachers may struggle to convince students why what they’re learning is relevant or interesting whereas I never have to do that. I can teach everything through a skateboard.
What are the main goals within the program and how do you help students reach them?
A lot of people see a skateboard and think it’s a toy or a hobby which minimalizes it. The skateboards that we create have design and technology embedded into them. We’re really trying to develop transferable creative and entrepreneurial skills. It’s not just about making skateboards and painting them; it also includes the business side of things.
Students develop their own brand and we help them launch it. It’s really engaging because they have products that clients have commissioned them for which means it becomes very real to the students. You can’t have a 50% skateboard; you have to give 150% or your client will just go somewhere else. This element of reality creates a highly engaging opportunity for students who have never done well in school.
What does a typical day look like at OSF?
Our school day starts at 10:30 in the morning. We know young people have a hard time getting up, so if you start school at 10:30, all of a sudden all those kids who were late before are now on time. It’s just about changing the structure. We expect almost like a work shift from them, and I think that kind of environment is much more real to these students. Oftentimes school is treated as this rehearsal for life, you learn these things and eventually one day you’ll do them. We say no, let’s do that now.
Every morning we write our work flow on the board. So instead of a typical school where you have math period one, English period two, here we might have four projects on the go and students learn how to manage their time. If you look around our classroom you might see someone jigsawing out a board shape, someone else painting a graphic, someone else writing a product catalogue. Students work as a design team together to maximize and share their skills.
What’s it like to see these students suddenly engaged and successful in their education?
It’s amazing when you see the students who have made their first skateboard. Their lives may be filled with things that have gotten in the way of school, so when you see them so proud of this thing they’ve made it really communicates their passion and pride. I think the program has really taken off because of its tangible success; we have a 95% course pass rate which is huge.
Some of these kids are the first in their family to graduate high school and they’re getting into colleges and universities because they have wicked portfolios and have worked with amazing people. Our students get a lot of mentorship from the skate and art communities which is a huge benefit to both parties. We’re always looking for interested professionals to collaborate with our students and provide these opportunities.
What are the requirements to apply?
You have to be over 16, and we do look for people who have struggled in mainstream schools but consider themselves a misfit skater and creator. Those who other people may have overlooked. Aside from that, you just have to live in the Toronto area and be able to work individually and as part of a team.
How important do you think it is to have alternative programs like this?
We know that one size does not fit all. The Toronto District School Board has a 30-year tradition of creating small programs to fit different kinds of students. I think it’s about matching teachers who have a passion with students who have a passion and taking that beyond the walls of a classroom.
What are you hoping to achieve in the upcoming years?
Our real love would be to expand; we’re in an awesome location but it would be great to be able to offer our students a storefront location to display their work. We want these students on street level. We’re also focusing on attracting diversity to skateboarding, something that needs to be a part of the skateboard story in Canada.
This year we’ll be having pop-up shops, releasing a new shop deck, and many more exciting things. We encourage everyone to check us out on social media so you can keep up!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am 21, and I’m from downtown Toronto. I immigrated from Russia as a child and have been living here ever since.
What was happening in your life before you started attending OSF?
I had attended a well-renowned arts high school but we all know the struggles of meeting people and fitting in. I had no understanding of life and the way the world worked so I was quite naïve. What I learned was that it didn’t really matter what you made; the teachers picked their favourite students and worked hard to make them successful. Those who did alternative styles of art were left with altered projects, bad grades, and low self-esteem.
While struggling to understand art, social constructs, and trying to escape my constricting home life, I fell into a deep depression. As I danced with my demons, I spiraled down to a point where I felt alone and trapped so I decided to jump and leave behind my home, friends, and art.
How did you find out about OSF?
I spent three long years partying, staying at shelters, and making my own choices, but after all the things I learned about the world I was actually excited to go back to school and learn. It was a feeling I had never really felt before. School is often a chore for kids, something they’re forced into which creates a barrier between education and passion. A small school downtown gave me a flyer for Oasis Skateboard Factory and I signed up that day and eagerly awaited the new semester.
How is OSF different than a typical high school?
Oasis Skateboard Factory is a school of opportunity where those with alternative ways of thinking can succeed through alternative paths of education.
Craig and Lauren, OSF’s teachers, fully encourage artistic differences and have worked hard to make such a well-built curriculum.
What were some of your best experiences at OSF?
We worked with Indigenous educators and collaborated to make a board reflecting their teachings. I collaborated with OCAD’s head printmaking technician to create a pop-art style board for a show in a Toronto heritage building and also made custom boards for clients. I created my own brand called Lizard Kidd and worked with a professional design company to create my logo and social media platforms to promote the brand.
Being at OSF has given me a lot of cool opportunities like learning how to skate at CJ’s SKATEPARK and getting my first real board. Now I ride everywhere and have gotten healthier for it. I’ve stepped out of my own boundaries and gained some great skills.
What is the most important thing OSF has taught you?
OSF has made me realize my true passion is and has always been art. My quest to make this world a better place has continuously looped back to the arts and I now know that it’s what I’m meant to do. So I’ve continued my brand and have started making boards at home. I hope to one day be able to fully support myself through my art. OSF has allowed me to see that it really is possible!
OSF has opened my eyes to understanding that success isn’t always achieved conventionally. It brings the community together by building networks where everyone works together to create an alternatively expressive world.
Do you think other people who don’t fit in at their typical high school would do better at OSF?
High school is a strange place. Many can conform to its standards, but many others just cannot bend that way. Those who find the system has or is failing them often feel like they aren’t good enough to make it in this world. It puts a terrible perception of what school is in your mind.
Oasis has completely rewritten that definition for me. If you have any interest in business, skateboards, alternative culture and art, and find yourself lost in the educational system, Oasis Skateboard Factory is the school for you!
What’s next for you?
I am returning to OSF this year as a studio assistant where I will help students make the most of their individual skills. I plan to make as much art as I possibly can, build connections in my community, and save up enough money to kick off my business. I am excited to see what the future has in store for me, for I may not know where my path leads, but I’ll be skating all the way to the end!
For more information and to see the rad stuff going down at Oasis Skateboard Factory, check out their blog here.