A New Breed of School For Troubled Youths

By Jessica Portner — June 08, 1994 13 min read
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Escalating violence in public schools--and mounting pressures from teachers and parents to do something about it--have politicians and educators scrambling to find a solution. Unruly students, they say, have become so disruptive in conventional classrooms that other children’s learning, and perhaps even lives, are at risk.

But from Boston to Los Angeles, a growing number of state and district school officials think they may have discovered a remedy: a new breed of school to get disruptive students out of traditional classrooms and into ones that better fit their needs.

Historically, educators set up alternative schools for chronic truants, teenage mothers, or students with learning disabilities, says Jay Smink, the director of the National Dropout Prevention Center in Clemson, S.C. Now, he says, educators are witnessing a major push to create programs for troubled youths who simply aren’t “making it’’ in traditional high schools. In fact, these alternative schools make up nearly 15 percent of the estimated 7,500 alternative schools currently operating nationally, according to Jerry Mintz, the director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, a clearinghouse on alternative schools in Roslyn, N.Y.

Over the past five years, experts estimate, more than 1,000 of these alternative schools have opened across the country. And that number continues to climb.

Alternative Twist

Because this particular type of school is new to the scene, educators have yet to settle on terminology. Legislators and school officials use such words as “disruptive,’' “aggressive,’' or “violent’’ to describe the students whom teachers and principals send to these programs. Maria Chairez, who runs the Horizon alternative-school program in Las Vegas, Nev., describes her students as “class clowns and physical fighters who carry weapons, throw matches in garbage cans, or incite riots.’'

Students in these programs don’t fit into one economic profile, either. Most could be categorized as disadvantaged, but many also come from middle-class backgrounds.

Despite these semantic squabbles, most alternative-school advocates can agree on how this new hybrid school stands apart from both its conventional and alternative counterparts.

Perhaps what is most distinguishable about these programs--which are almost exclusively secondary schools--is that they combine the personalized curriculum and smaller class sizes of traditional alternative schools with the stringent restrictions and social controls of correctional institutions.

Students usually enjoy more freedom to design their own educational programs than they would in a traditional school with a set schedule and prescribed lesson plans. Most of the programs are self-paced, ungraded, and homework-free.

These schools also offer a variety of attendance incentives you don’t find at conventional high schools. Students at the Borough Academy in New York City, for example, get to choose their own courses every day from a box of index cards. The earlier they get to school, the better their chances of getting into their favorite classes. Students can also earn “Borough Bucks,’' redeemable for compact disks, T-shirts, and playing cards, simply by showing up for class.

But in exchange for this kind of freedom and flexibility, students in these alternative schools are closely monitored throughout the day. They have to sign in every morning. They can’t leave campus for lunch. They can’t carry beepers. And they’re expected to surrender their backpacks, jackets, hats, and even some jewelry before going to class. Security is tight--police officers patrol many campuses--and rules are strictly enforced.

One day last month, Josel, a lanky 16-year-old student at the Borough Academy, had his first scrape with security. All seemed to be going well until he refused to take off his black denim jacket.

That was enough to have him removed from his English class. The dress code at the three-month-old alternative school clearly prohibits outer clothing--no coats, no hats, nothing that could conceal a weapon. “Josel seems to think taking off his jacket isn’t necessary today,’' said the counselor as she led him away.

“You have to be strict about something,’' says Borough Academy Principal Hope Eisman, who honed her skills as a disciplinarian as an assistant principal at the Riker’s Island Educational Facility for adolescent offenders in Queens, N.Y. “These kids are the world’s greatest challenge. But that’s what I love.’'

Stephen Phillips, the superintendent of alternative schools and programs for the New York City public schools, points out that this challenge becomes even greater with older students. “When you use the term ‘behavior modification’ with younger kids, it means learning how to not hit Johnny,’' he says. “But with older kids, it’s guidance stuff--how you plan your day, your life.’'

Indeed, daily guidance is central to the mission of these alternative programs. That means counselors are often the busiest people at school. They must work closely with with everyone--teachers, administrators, parents, and security officers--to see that each student understands and follows the rules.

In addition to in-school counseling, many programs also offer outreach services to students and their families. For example, at Boston’s Community Academy, which opened its doors in April, crisis-intervention workers make periodic home visits to provide support to students who may need counseling or other help outside the classroom.

“When you look at the problems in the urban areas--crime, gangs, drugs--it doesn’t surprise me to see kids who aren’t making it,’' says Elliot M. Feldman, the director of the alternative-education program of the Boston public schools. At the 15 schools he runs, Feldman also requires students to participate in community-service activities. It’s part of what he believes is his “moral obligation to keep kids off the streets.’'

Principal Chairez from the Horizon schools also includes a community component in the curriculum for the two Las Vegas high schools she oversees. In a “Teens, Crime, and Community’’ course, students deemed “insensitive to victims’’ learn about the consequences of criminal activity.

Gang specialists are also on staff at the Las Vegas schools to coordinate with parole officers and track students through their school careers. The program even offers support groups for parents who feel their children are, as Chairez says, “looked at like scum.’'

Even though students often drop out and return a few times before they finally graduate, district officials consider the Las Vegas program an improvement on their previous efforts to deal with these students.

“You have to do the wash a few times to get it clean,’' Chairez says.

Popular Response

The emergence of this new hybrid school is a response, in large part, to increasing political pressures. Legislators in five states are considering anti-crime packages that include alternative-school programs aimed at students who have been expelled for carrying weapons or becoming violent.

Late last month, the Florida legislature approved a $12 million alternative-school program that establishes several high schools for serious juvenile offenders. The Mississippi legislature recently passed a law that mandates an alternative school for every school district in the state.

Legislators in North Carolina, Tennessee, Colorado, New Jersey, and Georgia, and a state commission in Massachusetts, are currently considering similar measures.

A growing frustration among teachers unable to cope with violent and disruptive students in their classrooms has also pushed forward the search for a viable educational alternative.

Carol Keefe, the assistant to the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, says teachers’ unions have been lobbying for this type of school for years. In fact, after a 1992 incident in which a teacher and student were shot at a public high school in the city, the U.F.T. issued a report urging the school board to establish alternative schools for every grade.

“The situation is dreadful,’' Keefe says. “It’s amazing that the teachers can carry on as they have,’' she adds, citing a 1992 U.S. Justice Department finding that 100,000 guns are brought into schools every day.

Although she admits that these new schools represent “uncharted territory’’ that must be carefully traversed, Keefe and others see them as a welcome relief from the present course. “Education cannot proceed while constant disruption is going on,’' she says.

Another reason for the boom in this type of alternative school may be the proliferation of “zero tolerance’’ policies--increasingly popular among school boards--that allow school administrators to expel students automatically for carrying weapons to school. “This is a growing trend because, for schools dealing with students who bring guns to campus, there is pressure to do something more for them than just throw them out,’' says William Modzeleski, the director of drug planning and outreach for the U.S. Education Department.

Finally, some advocates look to alternative schools as a way to relieve the burden on the nation’s overcrowded juvenile-detention centers. “Other alternative schools are for dropouts,’' says Karen Johnson, a state senator from Florida who voted for passage of the state’s alternative-school program. “We are talking about a whole different society of kids who have committed crimes, and there is no place for them to go now. We need to have space available to get them off the streets.’'

Although commonly considered an answer to an urban problem, these alternative schools are also cropping up in rural areas across the country. Some rural districts--which may not have enough students to send to a such an alternative school but see them as a solution to some intractable behavioral problems--are getting creative.

In Laurel, Miss., for example, eight rural school districts pooled their resources to form a new district composed of a single alternative school. Located in a former department store, the school serves students deemed “aggressive’’ or those having difficulty adapting to a conventional high school.

“The disciplinary situation in the schools was a problem, and truant officers couldn’t handle the case load,’' says Dewey Blackledge, the director of the Pinebelt High School. Some of his students, he says, were left “more or less homeless’’ after their parents kicked them out of the house. He even found one student living under a bridge. That lack of family support, Blackledge adds, also rules out home-schooling--the only other possible educational recourse for many troubled youths.

Dumping Grounds?

Despite the enthusiasm of politicians, teachers, and school boards around the country, some education experts have doubts about this new approach to alternative schooling. Many question whether the new schools can provide the same educational opportunities conventional high schools offer. Some fear districts will be tempted to cut corners when they discover how much it can cost--up to $2 million a site--to outfit the schools with counselors, additional teachers, and outreach workers. And others wonder if the schools are anything more than convenient places to warehouse uncontrollable students.

“These schools are like soft jails, and that is not the most productive way to deal with human beings,’' contends Mary Anne Raywid, a professor of educational administration at Hofstra University on Long Island who has written extensively on alternative schools. “It’s a way of draining off the problem from the system rather than changing the [school] system, which is what we need to do.’'

Carolyn Jefferson, the principal of the Taylor Academy, an established alternative school in Cleveland, says she believes some of these new schools may simply fail students because they lack a precise educational plan. “If you’re not clear on your mission,’' Jefferson warns, “you can easily become a dumping ground.’' Schools born out of anti-crime legislation, she adds, may lack the traditional safeguards to insure that students receive an equitable education.

“This is a Band-Aid approach to something that needs radical surgery,’' Mintz of the Alternative Education Resource Organization adds. This modern type of alternative school, he charges, gives the alternative-school community a bad name.

Another reason this educational enterprise evokes such criticism may be that it seems philosophically out of sync with the original intent of the alternative-school movement, which began in the 1960’s. To those alternative-school advocates who promote more flexibility and freedom in the classroom, schools aimed at reining in students who have broken laws and are generally disobedient sound more like the reform schools popular in the early part of this century.

Some critics also believe that separating out students because of certain behaviors can create a segregated system that can damage a student’s self-esteem.

“Anytime you start an institution for troubled people, you have to struggle with the stigma that goes along with it,’' says Stephen Hamilton, a professor of human development and family studies at Cornell University and a leading researcher of alternative schools. In a program of this type, “teachers often have the feeling that these students are the losers,’' he adds, and it may be hard for students to overcome that label.

Uncertain Effectiveness

Despite strong views for and against this new breed of alternative schools, Hamilton and other researchers believe it is too soon to evaluate how successful these schools are in shepherding their students toward graduation.

Although alternative schools over all have received high marks for reducing dropout rates, no authoritative research documents how well those for disruptive students fare in comparison. There simply aren’t enough of them that have been in existence long enough to generate a representative sample, researchers warn.

Preliminary data from the two-year-old Horizon alternative-school program in Las Vegas, however, have shown promise. After the first year of operation, the dropout rate for the two schools dipped slightly below the district’s 11 percent average to 9.6 percent.

Some education observers argue that this type of school is merely a temporary phenomenon that will die down when the public outcry over youth violence has subsided. They claim the schools are just part of a politically driven fad that will fall short of becoming part of any long-term national educational agenda.

But others believe that as long as school-age youths belong to gangs, commit crimes, and disrupt classrooms, educators will look to these schools as possible solutions.

Phillips of New York City’s alternative-school program says district officials from around the country interested in setting up similar programs have visited his schools in the past two years.

Many districts have already begun talking about expanding their programs to include students in the 7th and 8th grades.

“In a city like Boston, you are seeing younger kids who are more and more involved with deadly weapons,’' Feldman, the director of the alternative-school program for that city, says. Middle schools for disruptive students, he predicts, are the next step.

Future Graduates

Teaching discipline to the undisciplined is a difficult task. But New York City’s Borough Academy is already making headway.

Past the guard’s desk in the front lobby of the school, six colorful charts hang on the wall marking each student’s progress toward earning credits for graduation. Purple, yellow, and green lines extend from one side of the cardboard poster to the other, where gold stars and exclamation points draw attention to the number 4,000--the number of partial credits students need to earn a diploma.

Borough Academy students who forge credits on the chart are suspended. But no one gets expelled.

“I actually feel promised a diploma in this school,’' says John Goykow, a blond, bearded 20-year-old in a Grateful Dead T-shirt who has been suspended from the city’s public schools more times than he can count. Gathering his belongings to join the swelling crowd of students in the hallway after class, Goykow admits that he enjoys acting up in school.

He smirks as he describes his latest antic: oinking like a pig in English class while other students were trying to read. Being disruptive is going to be a difficult habit to break, he says. But he promises to try.

A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 1994 edition of Education Week as A New Breed of School For Troubled Youths


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