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Alternative School Reform

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Second chances are rare in most dynamic fields, and education is no exception. Yet as I watch the education-reform movement broaden and deepen, I can see clearly that there will be a second chance for me.

My first chance came 20 years ago as I began my career as a teacher at the Village School in Great Neck, N.Y. The school was established in 1970 by Thomas Sobol, who later became New York State's commissioner of education, a post he held until this year. It was one of the first alternative schools in the country. At the time, a number of alternatives to traditional education, both public and private, were springing up across the country. They represented local responses to an unsettled society that boldly questioned everything from social mores to how school should be conducted.

Working in alternative education in the mid-1970's was exciting and being young and idealistic, I felt that our approaches and ideas would have immediate wide-scale appeal. The Village School, which was four years old when I joined its staff, seemed to thrive on innovation and creativity. The school did not assess its students in a traditional manner, and its curriculum was cooperatively developed by groups of staff members and students who took each other's ideas seriously. Students carved out high school educations that were personally meaningful and required sustained and serious work. Graduating seniors made applications to some of the nation's most prestigious colleges, substituting an extensive personal essay or a portfolio of their work for a numerical transcript. Instead of S.A.T. scores, they sometimes even substituted a letter stating their philosophical opposition to such standardized tests. Colleges, themselves often the crucibles from which social-change movements were catalyzed, almost always offered admission to our "ungraded" graduates.

In spite of our success, the Village School remained simply an "alternative," as its nontraditional practices proved to be a poor vessel with which to sail into the mainstream. Our personalized approach to education, the advisory system we developed to monitor student progress, our portfolio approach to the college-application process were most often seen as curiosities by those who worked in traditional settings. They were never thought to shed light on regular high school practice. I remember feeling that many of the innovations being pioneered in our school and others like it were based on exquisitely simple and sound principles. It seemed almost axiomatic that a student should be at the center of his own education and be given the opportunity, in whatever reasonable way, to construct his own knowledge. Yet I constantly had to defend the school--and my own professionalism--against charges that we did not follow approved curricula and were therefore "soft."

I wanted to view myself as a member of an educational research-and-development team that might lead the way to a new and broader view of high school education. Instead, I felt as if I were a part of an educational fringe element that was looked upon with suspicion.

There were not many people at that time with whom I could discuss my confusing place on the educational landscape. The network of alternative schools was not particularly strong, and in those days just keeping an alternative school alive was so labor-intensive there was little time for conferencing on the big issues. The alternative-schools movement was not truly a movement, because interest in these types of schools seemed to wane almost as quickly as it had sprung up. Most alternative schools had a lifespan of about four years, and the threat of extinction was always present. The threat grew with the increasing popularity of the "back to basics" movement.

I was lucky in some respects. My school, operated by a very progressive district, was able to remain open. And although it was not seen as a way to fundamentally reform schooling, it was always viewed as a viable option for a select group of students. Beginning in the late 1970's, this group began more and more to be students who had been swept out of the mainstream by the crosscurrents of alienation and competition. Interestingly enough, the student-centered orientation of the school and its basic mode of operation did not require much modification to achieve success with its changing student population.

While our "at risk" students, as they have come to be called, were benefiting from alternative approaches, the report of a Presidentially appointed commission on schools charged in memorable language that the entire nation was "at risk" due to educational neglect. That was 12 years ago this month. Subsequent reports raised public concern to a level sufficient for politicians and some of the nation's leading educators to begin calling for wide-scale reform of the system. The reforms needed were so fundamental, they believed, that schools would have to be completely restructured to remain viable. Changes in the size of schools, in assessment methods, in administrative procedures, in the role of community and parents were cast as "new ideas." But in reality they had their roots in the short-lived alternative-education experiments of the early 1970's.

I am now the director of the Village School and after approximately 20 years on the fringes I am inching toward an important second chance, this time in the mainstream of educational ideas. It is admittedly an unusual place to find myself, but there are many reasons to be optimistic that the results will be different the second time around.

Two decades ago, the society was so generally unsettled that any concern about changing education had to compete with other tumultuous concerns. Paradoxically, the Vietnam War, which may have sparked us to begin questioning the way things were done in social institutions like schools, actually distracted us from mounting a sustained educational overhaul.

Today, it appears that society's concern is trained more squarely on educational issues. It does not appear that this concern for education will dissipate any time soon, since a sound educational system is now seen as fundamental to our ability to compete successfully in the world economy.

This education-economic link, reinforced by unfavorable comparisons between our schools and those of other economically vibrant nations, has raised interest in school reform to new heights. The attempts made by teachers and administrators in schools that have taken to heart the need for reform are no longer going unrecognized. To the contrary, educators across the country are being encouraged by well-organized reform networks and funded by an interested and well-endowed private sector to "break the mold" and broaden the definition of schooling.

The reform efforts of the 1990's are also much better organized than the idiosyncratic attempts at reform made in isolation by alternative schools. Leading educators such as James P. Comer and Theodore R. Sizer have developed national networks for the growing numbers of educators interested in reform. Mr. Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, for example, facilitates a national dialogue on these issues, providing an opportunity for people to exchange ideas and draw support from each other's experiences. The mounting research base also is informing practice in a way that would have helped us avoid tactical mistakes in the 1970's and gain more credibility.

Many earlier alternative schools suffered from an over-zealous desire to have their approaches adopted by all schools. I was certainly guilty on this count. I believed the Village School was a model worth replicating. Today, reform leaders recognize that schools are special places and replication of a promising approach in one setting may not be possible in another. Reformers strive instead to achieve consensus on some common principles about schools and schooling and to adapt those to their own particular situation. This approach is less threatening, less confrontational, and has already proven to be more effective.

But it is an approach that will also require time and patience to develop fully. As the historical record indicates, it has taken two decades to move the once-radical ideas pioneered in alternative schools from the fringes into the mainstream of educational thought. It is therefore reasonable to expect that it will take almost as long to discover the optimal ways to use these ideas to create an improved educational system.

However long it takes, I believe it will be time well spent. My days of zealous proselytizing about alternative education have given way to more reasoned daily efforts to make my school the best it can be. As I build networks with the growing number of educators interested in school reform, I do so with a renewed appreciation for the virtue of patience and the joys a second chance can bring.

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