Published Online: February 26, 1997

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Horizon Alternative School: Why Promising Reforms Disappear

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Horizon Alternative High School was created to meet the needs of dropouts or potential dropouts. It demonstrated remarkable success for a period of seven years. Then, in 1982, it was closed.

In the winter of 1979, the Johnson Foundation invited an unusual group of educators to its Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wis. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the reform of the public schools with people who were intensively involved with alternative schools. The participants talked about their problems and shared their successes, all the while expressing a general fear that their endeavors would not endure. Each person present knew of a school or a reform program that had been closed down after a brief trial run. A representative at the meeting from the U.S. Department of Education said, in fact, that the education community itself seemed to be a hindrance to reform. Its resistance to change was entrenched and powerful.

At the time, I didn't think my school would suffer the fate foreseen by others. It had the support of the superintendent and the school board, and I felt confident that, if we were successful, we would survive. I was wrong.

Horizon Alternative High School in Bakersville, Calif., was created during the 1975-76 school year to meet the needs of dropouts or potential dropouts. It demonstrated remarkable success for a period of seven years. Then, in 1982, it was closed. Visitors from throughout the United States had come to Bakersville and modeled alternative schools and magnet programs on what they saw at Horizon. Last spring, 20 years after the school's founding, former teachers gathered to talk about why Horizon had been such a singular experience in their lives and why innovative school programs such as Horizon's do not seem to last.

Perhaps, in an era of charters and choice, their reflections will shed light on the all-too-frequent disappearance of promising changes in school practice.

First, some notes on the elements of change represented by the Horizon experiment. Many of the innovations attempted, though in sync with current reform thinking, were quite new in 1975 and were therefore suspect among teachers from the district's traditional schools. Not many of them felt the program would be anything other than a watered-down version of the regular high school curriculum. This was not the case. The Horizon curriculum was comparable to the general education program found in all of the district's 14 high schools. There was no "college prep" track, but many of our students were challenged by the total learning experience at Horizon and went on to universities and state colleges.

These are the elements that made Horizon different and successful: the existence for each student of a designated teacher adviser; the opportunity for and the encouragement of independent study; a belief in continuous progress as a marker of success; learning "pacs"; use of the whole community as a resource, with plenty of field trips and open classes; a balance of small-group discussion and large-group presentations; flexible time; deep-rooted parent involvement; the use of cooperative education techniques; an integrated curriculum; relevant assignments; an informal atmosphere that encouraged closer relationships between and among teachers and students; and a structure free of bells and grades.

While this list does not give a real feel for the uniqueness of life within the Horizon experiment--field trips to museums, mountains, and beaches; classes in the park; discussion groups in students' homes with the parents taking part--it suggests why the school was effective with its core constituency: at-risk students who had shown academic promise before high school, but had passed into the dropout profile by their sophomore years. Though the student-teacher ratio was good--25-to-1--the changes in school structure and teaching strategies were what, to most of those present at the Horizon reunion, made the difference. And these were accomplished within a modest budget--a fact that the district's other educators did not understand. Their mistaken perception that field trips and good student-teacher interaction could only be the byproducts of greater financial outlays led to the decision to close Horizon in a period of fiscal restraint.

At the reunion, I asked them, "Why do you think Horizon was successful and why do you think it closed?"

But let my fellow Horizon teachers expand on that point. At the reunion, I asked them, "Why do you think Horizon was successful and why do you think it closed?" Here are some of their answers:

RON, an English teacher and the program's co-founder: "Aside from the superintendent, most teachers in the district did not understand what we were doing. We were entering a cycle of conservatism at that time and we were all caught up in the 'back to basics' movement. The other teachers looked upon our school as a reflection of their weaknesses.

"But if you have a school structure that promotes student-teacher relationships, that's what counts. At Horizon, every teacher had a close, continuing relationship with every student in his or her first-period 'interact' class, an advisory class.

"We were a community-based school, so we took students to a lot of different places. When you do that, everyone is placed in an informal situation and the authority structure changes. A lot of teachers elsewhere said it wouldn't work--why, we allowed the students to call us by our first names. We would never be able to control them if we allowed them to be informal with us. But we had no problems."

JACK, a math teacher:"Once we eliminated the structure separating students and teachers, a trust developed and we became very close. You do have to have teachers who are not afraid to work with students in an informal situation. My teacher friends at other schools disagreed with the whole concept.

"I took my math classes to the stock exchange once a week. We approached math from a practical curriculum perspective. The methods were similar to John Dewey's experiential-project method. We realized that we couldn't teach them the way they have always been taught. It didn't work for these students. So we tried a practical approach. That worked. Our students did better than the district average on math scores."

CLAIRE, an English teacher: "People ask me all the time why this experience was so special, and I say it was because we tried everything to see if it would work with the students. Many schools are trying now to do variations of the innovations we tried, but they don't understand that everyone at the school must buy into it. They must be a team. Our colleagues at other schools just didn't get it."

SEBASTIAN, a math and science teacher: "I came the last year of Horizon's existence and I noticed the spirit immediately. Educators came from all over the United States to visit the school, and they caught the spirit of the place as soon as they entered the building. I never found this at the traditional schools."

VICKIE, an art teacher: "As a group, the students were very creative individuals, and I saw my job as releasing their creativity. We had great parental support but the board didn't understand our purpose."

RANDY, a U.S. history and government teacher: "I now teach in a traditional high school, and the staff gets tired of my telling them, 'We did that at Horizon.' But it's true--we did so many things that worked. Schools today are trying to reach the at-risk students by doing one or two things. We did everything we could think of, or had read about.

"The structure of the traditional school meets the needs of maybe 60 percent of the school-age population. When will people realize there are a large number of students who don't fit that structure? The traditional teachers and the school board expect everyone to fit their structure."

I don't know how we could have saved Horizon. The school was ahead of its time.

THE PRINCIPAL: "People often asked if the school was expensive or if it had government grants. It did not. The perception on the part of the board was that Horizon was a drain on the district's funds. The truth is that it operated on less [average-daily-attendance] funds than the traditional schools.

"As the administrator, of course, I found it a little disconcerting to have my students and teachers out so much and so widely in the community. You worry about accidents. Yet, despite what would certainly be considered too great a risk in today's litigious society, the school operated in an area of trust--trust in teachers, students, and the purpose of the school. This is frightening to many traditional teachers, administrators, and school board members."

I don't know how we could have saved Horizon. The school was ahead of its time. It ran into resistance from a strong teachers' union and a newly elected conservative school board. It was closed before we had time to convince the new board that Horizon was a school of the future, one they should be proud of. While attending the conference of alternative schools at Wingspread, we were warned by other struggling innovative schools that the establishment would find a way to discredit our efforts. Participants explained that most of their work was focused on convincing other educators, not the general public.

This seems to hold true today. This year, a RAND Corp. report examined schools attempting to innovate within the context of Goals 2000. Teams funded by the New American Schools Development Corp. to develop and demonstrate whole-school designs similar to alternative schools concluded for the most part that, although some change had taken place, real progress was elusive. That was so, according to the report, because "important actors with strong systemic influence on schools remain outside these teams' and NASDC's ability to influence them."

Perhaps E.D. Hirsch Jr. is right when he says that the education community "operates behind a web of slogans and brooks no internal dissent while resisting real scientific reform."

Yesterday's experiences are not always the answers to today's problems, but as we all seek to better meet the needs of our students, we should be mindful of the lessons of the past. Change is difficult, and when trailblazers have the courage to risk, we ought to give them respectful support, not uninformed criticism.


Robert B. Amenta is an associate professor of education at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where he is also the director of educational administration.

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