Alternative Educators Form National Network for Change
By William Snider
Orlando, Fla--After five years of debate, a group of alternative-school educators has decided to create an informal national "affiliation'' to foster communication among themselves and promote nontraditional approaches to education.
Representatives from 34 states, meeting here in June at the 19th annual conference on educational alternatives, agreed to establish the Affiliation of Alternative School Associations and Personnel.
Before approving the new network, participants considered and rejected a national organization modeled along more conventional lines.
The organization "will not recognize or empower any one spokesman for alternative education, or require national dues or a typical structure like that used in state associations," states the proposal adopted by the conference.
Instead, sponsors explained, the affiliation will serve as a vehicle for communication between the state organizations, which will volunteer for such tasks as developing a national directory of alternative schools and disseminating information about succcessful programs.
The affiliation represents "a modest but deliberate attempt to provide a sense of solidarity to persons who are attempting to do some innovative things to reform public education," said Rita Thrasher, a Florida teacher and chairman of the conference.
Setting in Stone?
Although alternative educators have formed at least 18 state associations in the past decade, many veterans of the field have resisted rec4ommendations that the group adopt a formal structure at the national level.
That reluctance has stemmed in part from what some have seen as the lack of a need for such an organization. The success of alternative programs depends largely on local actions, participants said.
"There has been a real concern that if there were an organization, several things would be set in stone that people would rather not have set," added Robert L. Fizzell, a teacher and executive director of Washington State's Alternative Learning Association.
"We have talked for 18 years about a definition for alternative education, and have never agreed on one," he observed. "We really don't need one."
Though most of the schools represented are publicly funded, they have little else in common, ranging from 1960's-style open-classroom programs to dropout-prevention programs developed this decade.
Mr. Fizzell and others are also wary that lobbying for alternative education at the national level would lead to the creation of one or more categorical federal programs.
"Then we would become a special class of school with a special class of students," he said. "What we've always envisioned is that all schools would become options."
'Window of Opportunity'
Several participants noted that the growth of movements for school-based management and parental choice provides "a window of opportunity'' for the expansion of the nontraditional teaching methods they espouse.
Deborah Meier--the movement's best-known advocate--said she was initially opposed to the idea of options and choice when asked in 1974 to establish the first Central Park East school in New York City's Community District 4.
"My own political and social values made me hostile to the 1960's talk about alternatives," she said. "I was convinced that the rest of you out there who might have taken another path were copping out."
But the concepts advanced by alternative educators--in some cases for decades--have now become the foundations of the movement to restructure schools, Ms. Meier and others noted.
In many cases, they said, alternative schools owe their survival to having maintained a low profile andavoided the attention of district officials. Alternative programs are often the first to be cut during lean budget years, and face pressures to conform to efforts to standardize schools.
But with the emergence of the restructuring debate, said Lynn P. Hartzler, consultant on independent study and public schools of choice for the California Department of Education, "a lot of alternative educators are saying 'Hey, I've been demonstrating what you're talking about."'
Further information on the Affiliation of Alternative School Associations and Personnel is available from state associations or from Raymond Morley, Iowa Department of Education, Bureau of Compensatory and Equity Education, Grimes State Office Building, Des Moines, Iowa 50319-0146; (515) 281-3786.