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Last Chance High

Stressing connection and commitment, administrators are turning around alternative schools—giving troubled kids a second chance at success.

Four years ago, Don Reid took over as principal of Kennedy Metropolitan Middle School, an alternative school for fourth through eighth graders with behavior problems in Louisville, Kentucky.

“When I came to the school it was out of control,” he says. “Teachers were being injured. There was little instruction. There was no system for discipline,” and students “were drowning in the negativity.”

Reid was determined to turn the school—which, like many alternative schools, is a temporary program meant to get students back on track—around.  

Now, kids gather each morning in small classroom circles to talk about the day ahead, what’s happening in their lives, and how to treat one another with respect.

Every student is involved with service learning. Some play bingo with nursing home residents; others grow food for the homeless in the school garden; and still others, as members of the Reptile Outreach Team, bring snakes and turtles to elementary schools for nature talks.

Reid holds his students to the same academic standards as at other schools. Kennedy Metro has added a robotics program and inquiry-based math. Test scores are going up; office referrals for discipline problems are down. The kids are gaining confidence and connecting with the community. “We set high expectations for behavior and academics and provide innovative programs that captivate, motivate, and inspire students to achieve at their highest levels,” says Reid. Recidivism is just 1 percent among students who have returned to their home schools. And that’s the goal.

The majority of alternative programs are punitive, rather than schools of choice, and that, according to Terry Cash, assistant director of the National Dropout Prevention Center in South Carolina, is not effective in helping students change behaviors. “If the model isn’t good, you aren’t going to see the outcomes,” he says. Or, as Reid bluntly puts it, “Alternative schools have a reputation for warehousing students.”

Reid is just one of a growing number of administrators who are refusing to abandon students to the warehouse model. Through dedication and innovation they’re finding new approaches that put the “alternative” back into alternative education.

It’s an uphill battle. Charged with handling some of the most troubled kids in the system, alternative ed programs face the same challenges as traditional schools—budget cuts, testing standards, teacher retention. Plus, “alternative education is not on the federal radar,” says Lori Lamb, president of the National Alternative Education Association. “Alternative programs are often the first to be cut or canceled.” That leaves the funding burden to the states in a harsh economic climate. Operating without adequate oversight and support, alternative schools, says Lamb, have been forced to accomplish more—academically, emotionally, and socially—with less.

Forging Relationships
Making a connection with each student is key to building a successful alternative school. Students can excel if they know adults care about them and what they are learning is relevant to their lives. “You need to forge a relationship. It takes being real and hard work,” says Mark Williams, an English teacher at North Heights Alternative School in Amarillo, Texas.

It also takes creativity and flexibility—and the freedom to step outside the box. “Find a project that will tie into their career path and integrate it into the standards,” suggests Williams. Some of his students interviewed businesses to develop an iPhone app that provides a local map for tourists. Others set up a student-run coffee shop in the school; the profits are going into a scholarship fund.

Ann Browning, principal of Tate Alternative High School in Iowa City, says her administration “has given us free rein to make partnerships and encourage kids to play an active role in their own education.” She’s hired a workplace coordinator who will help arrange internships and transition planning for recent graduates. Tate is partnering with nearby Kirkwood Community College to offer a culinary arts program on-site for college credit. Next, it hopes to add a home construction program.

To address discipline problems, Browning is starting up student study-team meetings as a forum for teachers to discuss concerns and provide continuity throughout the day. At the first sign of disruption in class, kids will be sent to a student advisory center, where a staffer will work with them to resolve the problem so they can return to class rather than be sent home. “They stay here—where we want them,” says Browning.  

Setting the Bar High
Unlike many alternative high schools, which focus on vocational education, Southfield Regional Academic Campus, in suburban Detroit, has ramped up its college-readiness program. On the first day of school, students are required to research five colleges online. “The mind-set for alternative schools has been to just get them through,” says Principal Marty Bulger. “We want to get them to the next challenge.”

Southfield serves troubled students who often lag behind, academically or socially. But the mix of college tours, motivational speakers, ACT test analysis, and mentoring programs has inspired many students to expand their horizons. This year 86 percent of the graduates are going on to college. “The main thing is conversation around high expectations,” says Bulger, whose school was recognized as the state’s top alternative high school last year.

Earlier Intervention

Teachers of very young students say they can often predict which ones are going to make it in school and which ones are not. Alternative schools for elementary and middle school students have been growing in number, as a way of addressing kids’ needs earlier on, before their problems become intractable.

“It’s a scary situation in our society, with guns, drugs, and violence,” says Steve Baxter, director of Success Class, in Batesville, Arkansas, which serves about 30 K–6 students having difficulty with traditional schooling. “We’re seeing more students at a younger age with mental health issues, even before kindergarten.” Success Class makes its home in one of the district’s four elementary schools. “Enrollment is by choice,” explains Baxter. “We don’t force students into the program. It’s not a punishment.” Kids come for a minimum of nine weeks, and typically stay about a semester before returning to regular classes.

As more early alternative programs open in the area, administrators are turning to Baxter for advice on best practices. “I tell them to have the right staff in place,” he says, “staff that care and can build relationships with students.” He also advises keeping classes small, with the focus on individual and group instruction, and using a token system for positive reinforcement.

In Hackett, Arkansas, Donna Swift started an alternative education program six years ago for sixth to eighth graders within the district. The program has 15 students, and there are 30 more on a waiting list. “They are usually a grade or two behind,” Swift says. “We are looking for students with academic deficiencies, social problems—and kids we can save.”
The program emphasizes technology, project-based learning, and differentiated instruction. There is no homework. “If you can’t do it during the day, it’s pointless,” Swift says. Overall, the program’s students make significant academic gains and eventually they want to come to school. By ninth grade, most are merged back into the mainstream.

Steps to Success
Before embarking on any major changes to a program, be sure to get buy-in, says Robert Eichorn, principal of New Directions Alternative Education Center in Manassas, Virginia. Consult with teachers, support personnel, policy makers, parents, and students. Start with a brief questionnaire or interview. “So many times, things in education don’t happen because people weren’t given the opportunity to give their input,” he says.

When Eichorn wanted to get a summer program off the ground, he shared data from neighboring schools that showed how such programs improved student performance, reduced behavior problems, and made the job easier for teachers in the fall.
Michael Carter, coordinator of the Fast Forward Center, which serves alternative schools in the Dayton, Ohio, area, stresses the importance of hiring faculty who believe in the school’s mission. “These folks are called, not chosen,” he says. And if you can recruit teachers who share your vision, you won’t get bogged down in disagreements when it’s time to implement the program, he says.

Once you’ve assembled a committed staff, make sure they receive the necessary training and support. Teaching in an alternative classroom is tough, says Molly McCloskey, managing director of ASCD’s Whole Child Initiative. “It requires a different level of skill and investment from staff.” Professional development customized for alternative school educators should cover social and emotional learning issues and classroom management, balancing structure with flexibility, she says.

Learning From Alternative Schools
Consulting with stakeholders, recruiting committed teachers, giving staff the support and training they need—that’s a sound battle plan for school leaders everywhere. Traditional educators would also do well to take note of areas where effective alternative schools are leading the way, in their emphasis on building relationships, for example, and getting to know students’ needs.

Good alternative schools also excel at creating community. “The biggest mistake administrators make is thinking they can do it on their own,” says Karen Scheessele, director of extended learning opportunities for Indiana’s Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation. “They need strong leadership teams, with families and people from the community.”  

“Engage the families. Teach them, and more important, learn from them,” she says. “Show unconditional, positive regard to the students and their families. Let them know you can’t do this work without them.”

—Late Fall 2012—

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