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Published in Print: February 23, 2000, as The Need for More Alternative Schools


The Need for More Alternative Schools

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Too many children become alienated and unknown in large traditional public schools, primarily middle schools and high schools.

Since the tragedy at Columbine High School last spring, educators throughout the country have turned their attention to making schools more secure. In order to protect students and teachers from a kind of random violence that once seemed unthinkable, we have hired experts to help us develop crisis plans, identify seriously troubled students, and create programs that encourage all students to confide in adults when they have fears about safety.

These actions are understandable. No one wants to see his school on the evening news as a scene of death and mayhem. Unfortunately, however, most of the efforts we have taken address only the symptoms of the kind of problem that leads to violence in schools. Put simply, too many children become alienated and unknown in large traditional public schools, primarily middle schools and high schools.

With the exception of a handful of larger school districts in my state, most towns have just one high school and one or two middle or junior high schools. These same towns usually have at least five churches, several pharmacies, many restaurants, a few grocery stores, and perhaps even a shopping center. Why is it that we provide ourselves with many choices for worship, entertainment, and shopping, but only one choice for the public education of adolescents?

For me, one of the most startling aspects of the TV coverage of the Columbine High shootings was the aerial footage of the school. The sheer size of the facility astounded me. That it took police several hours to secure the building, and more than a day to make sure that it was free of bombs, came as little surprise.

Yet Columbine is hardly an aberration. In many towns in my state and across the country, the high school is the largest building, with the possible exception of a factory or some other large business.

Unlike businesses, schools should not be designed to encourage uniformity, but to help each child recognize his or her singular attributes— special needs, talents, gifts. Large schools can do this for many students, but they simply cannot do it for all. This is not a criticism, only a statement of the obvious.

Most of us recognize the needs of very young children. We know that in the early grades, kids need small schools with a close and personal atmosphere. We understand that young children require nurturing to develop a sense of confidence in themselves.

Small schools are places where students get more attention, perform better, and are happier.

Yet, for some reason, we seem to think that once students get to the middle grades—a time that encompasses all the confusion and turbulence of adolescence—they don't need as much personal support. This myth gets perpetuated in our high schools. Students who become alienated in junior high usually remain that way through high school, if they don't drop out altogether.

It is important for us to recognize that we are not talking about strange or weird kids who walk around schools in trench coats, threatening others. Most of the young people who don't seem to fit are very normal kids. They are not "other people's children." They are our kids—ones we see in church, at the mall, or across the street.

These are students who may withdraw when they are in a large group. They may not respond to the normal activities of a traditional school. They may not play sports. Some may have questions about their sexual identity. Some may be quite intelligent and interested in learning, but not in the way traditional schools expect.

For years, many in education have operated under the flawed assumption that large schools are cost- effective. We have reasoned that, by placing a lot of students and teachers together, we could offer more programs and classes. In a large school, for example, we can offer Greek or advanced calculus and have enough students to expect to fill those classes.

Many in education have operated under the flawed assumption that large schools are cost-effective.

Unfortunately, economies of scale do not only pay the dividends expected. The flaws in our system of large schools also have become obvious. Increasingly, we have felt the need to create many smaller structures or groupings within a large school to give students a chance to feel that they have "a place." These kinds of innovations take time, personnel, and money. And many of the students they attempt to serve simply are not "joiners" and may never become part of the subgroupings.

Another hefty cost of large schools comes in the number of students who repeat a grade and require an extra year of schooling—along with other programs—if they remain in school and graduate. Consider the numbers: If you have a high school of 1,200 students (not unusual), and a graduating class of 300, it is probable that 30 to 50 of these students will have repeated a grade at some point in their school careers. This means that each year, the school system has, for all intents and purposes, served 30 to 50 more students than necessary.

For those students who do not make it through school and drop out prior to graduation, the cost is not usually borne by the school system, but by some other segment of the state's social programs. In either case, the money comes from the pocket of the taxpayers.

Some of these students, the luckier ones, get jobs and eventually obtain their General Educational Development diplomas. A small number then go on to postsecondary education and end up fulfilling a reasonable part of their potential. Others just "hang out" and go from one temporary job to another, often collecting whatever benefits come their way, whether from the state, their parents, or friends. Some become parents themselves. Others get into trouble and end up in group homes. A few eventually end up in a training school, at a cost that is several times that of traditional schools. The most seriously alienated of these children end up dead.

Just in terms of public spending, there is no sense in our not meeting the needs of these children at an earlier age. Unfortunately, it is not now in the short-term financial interest of towns or school systems to provide small alternative schools. But we could design incentives for our public schools to serve these children.

The incentives could take the form of start-up grants from the state or the federal government. Most districts, given the choice to make adjustments for fewer students in other schools, would find that they could afford these alternatives. But without outside help, few if any districts are likely to set aside scarce funds to serve a group of students who may be falling behind and leaving school very quietly. Other incentives might take a harder line, requiring, for example, that school districts pay for a portion of the social services students who end up in state care need.

Why is it that we provide ourselves with many choices for worship, entertainment, and shopping, but only one choice for the public education of adolescents?

The missing piece in our system of public education is the lack of options for students who need something different. Interestingly enough, it is in our urban areas that we find the greatest availability of alternatives to large traditional schools. But there are still not enough of these schools in cities, and virtually none in suburban districts, where the need for them is just as great.

By their very nature, alternative schools are generally small schools, often with fewer than 200 students. They tend to be staffed by teachers with a desire to work in nontraditional settings. When you walk into an alternative school, you generally get a sense of community and personal caring. Different alternatives can have different missions, and they can operate in substantially different ways. The goal is not sameness; it is to reflect the needs and personalities of the students.

An expanding body of research in recent years has been telling us something about these schools that seems like common sense: Small schools are places where students get more attention, perform better, and are happier. In her synthesis of this research, Mary Anne Raywid notes that small learning communities often employ unconventional organizational structures that help promote the sense of belonging. The bonds that are created in small schools, she says, are likely to have a positive influence on students long after they leave high school.

What makes these schools so valuable in violence reduction is the fact that a child will find it hard to go through even a portion of the day without some meaningful contact with an adult. Says Cathleen Cotton, a researcher at the Northeast Regional Educational Laboratory: "It doesn't matter what category you measure. Things are better in smaller environments. Shy kids, poor kids, the average athletes—they are all made to feel like they truly fit in."

Small alternative schools are not, of course, the complete solution to the problems of alienated young people and violence in the schools. But they can be an important part of the solution.

Charter school legislation should spur the creation of these small alternative public schools. Districts can devise plans on their own or through any of the existing collaboratives. But educators should not underestimate the public's desire for more choice. They should recognize the possibility that, by not meeting this need, they could strengthen the call for vouchers.

For the students and parents who want an alternative to the often impersonal world of large, comprehensive public secondary schools, it won't matter how we get there, only that we do.

Robert DeBlois is the director of the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program, an alternative public school in Providence, R.I.

Vol. 19, Issue 24, Pages 40,45

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