Experts Divided on Alternative Schools

By Debra Viadero — April 24, 1987 11 min read

Shawn Lettau’s behavior had earned him the label of truant and troublemaker in the Anne Arundel County, Md., schools. And after repeated suspensions, the 14-year-old was given a choice: Either attend an “alternative school’’ for disruptive students or be expelled.

He chose the alternative school, a place called the Learning Center in Annapolis, and now he earns top grades while dreaming of a good job after graduation.

“It’s the best thing that’s happened to me since I’ve been in school,’' he says.

But Huntley J. Cross, the center’s director, remembers a time when success stories like Shawn’s were the exception, rather than the rule.

When he came to the school 13 years ago, Mr. Cross says, it was “somewhat of a dumping ground,’' lumping together the emotionally disturbed, those prone to bad grades and misbehavior, and the seriously delinquent.

Other educators claim that at too many of such discipline-based alternative schools, that situation may still be the case.

In an era of magnet schools and other options, the traditional notion of placing problem students in non-voluntary alternative programs for special attention has gained new momentum nationwide. But because of widely varying program quality, not all experts consider the development a positive one.

“Simply taking kids out of one setting and placing them in another, arbitrary setting doesn’t do them any good,’' explains Denise Gottfredson, a University of Maryland researcher who, five years ago, helped complete a Johns Hopkins University study of federally funded alternative schools.

What often makes the difference between success and failure, she and others maintain, are the underlying motives for the program’s establishment.

True “alternative schools’'--those whose mission is to deal seriously with the dropout problem--stand a better chance of succeeding, they say, than those whose hidden agenda may be to rid regular classrooms of troublemakers or retain state aid in the face of declining enrollments.

But even reasonably successful alternative programs are not without critics, who charge that they segregate and stigmatize youngsters. And school-board members in some districts considering alternative schools have expressed an additional fear: that such programs could lead to discrimination against minority youths.

The divergent thinking on the subject is perhaps best summarized by Stephen Hamilton, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Cornell University who claims “a philosophical position that says, ‘Watch out; that’s dangerous’ and empirical results that say it could work.’'

“I am worried about any kind of program that labels kids and separates them from the rest of the kids,’' he says, adding that “there’s also danger of an escalation of the problem when you put these kids with other problem children.’'

Yet, judging only from the standpoint of whether or not such alternative schools have succeeded in keeping students from dropping out, Mr. Hamilton says, “you find out that many of them did.’'

Varied Approaches

To Jim O’Connor, director of another Maryland alternative school, the Kingsley Wilderness Project in Clarksburg, there is no question that such programs work.

Quoting statistics he says are “a little old,’' he points out that 90 percent of the youngsters who come into his program have previously had a brush with the law. But, in a follow-up study of the nine-year-old program, he adds, only 10 percent of the “graduates’’ were shown to have had such encounters.

In addition, Mr. O’Connor says, “a vast majority’’ of the program participants go on to graduate from high school. Students’ achievement levels in reading and mathematics also increase significantly during their stays, he says. Students typically remain in the project one-and-a-half years before returning to a traditional school.

Situated on an old farm near a regional park, the Kingsley project serves approximately 30 chronically truant or disruptive children from the Montgomery County, Md., schools each year. They spend half a day learning the basic skills and half a day performing some sort of hands-on work--either helping maintain the park nearby or doing custodial or maintenance work on the project’s farm.

“They begin to see the evidence of their efforts, and they associate with those productions and take pride in them,’' Mr. O’Connor says.

There is also a “lifetime sports’’ program that exposes students to such activities as skiing, white-water rafting, and hiking.

He sees these pursuits as helping to socialize troubled youngsters. “Whenever you’ve engaged in these types of activities and loved them,’' he says, “you’ve always got a friend instantly in someone else with the same interests.’'

But few alternative schools can offer the rich diversity of the Kingsley experience, with its rural location, sports offerings, and work activities.

For other school systems, the alternative program may vary according to community needs and resources. For example:

  • The Academy for Community Education in Miami, Fla., combines basic-skills training in the morning with afternoon apprenticeships at local businesses. The nonprofit company that set up the school has also devised a model economic system designed to modify student behavior based on the use of tokens. Students at the school accumulate tokens for good behavior and use them to “buy’’ items in the school store.
  • The Anne Arundel County schools’ Learning Center employs “reality therapy,’' a structured environment, individual attention, and a regular academic program for its 80 to 100 problem students. (See accompanying story on this page.)
  • The Washington, D.C., school system this month is scheduled to begin operating a program called Providing an Alternative Unique School Environment (PAUSE). Envisioned as a “last chance’’ for students suspended for more than 25 days, PAUSE requires that participants undergo a medical examination, psychiatric and special-education evaluations, and family interviews with social-service workers before entering the program.

“Sometimes a kid’s problem might just be that he needs glasses or has diabetes,’' said Andrew Topps, director of the new program.

  • In Boston, the school committee voted to set up a counseling center for students suspended for carrying weapons on school property, following a school stabbing incident this year that resulted in a student’s death. Students stay at the center anywhere from 3 to 10 days, and are counseled by a staff made up of juvenile-justice officials, mental-health professionals, and social-service workers.

In short, says the University of Maryland’s Ms. Gottfredson, there is no single model for the alternative-school approach to problem students.

“They can range from places to dump the kids to get them out of the school, to the other extreme, where they really do a good job to figure out what causes problems for those kids,’' she says.

In Georgia, for example, where state education officials are writing guidelines for schools considering an “in-school suspension’’ alternative, more than half of the schools already have some sort of program in place. But, according to Marilyn Beck, a consultant in the state education department, “some of the programs are a space in the gym where the teacher supervises the students, and some are regular alternative schools where the students receive instruction.’'

1960’s Roots

The tendency of many full-scale programs to become “dumping grounds’’ for the problems no one else wants has made Mary Anne Raywid, a researcher who has studied both magnet and alternative schools for the past 10 years, highly critical. She refuses to label programs for disruptive students as “alternative schools.’' “There is nothing chosen about them,’' she says. “It’s something to which one is sent as a form of punishment.’'

“Certainly, any kind of discipline program represents a school failure,’' adds Ms. Raywid, who is a professor of education at Hofstra University and director of its center for the study of educational alternatives.

She stresses that such programs should not be confused with magnet schools and other kinds of alternative schools to which students apply because the programs offer a specialized curriculum, a different educational approach, or a better educational program.

The development of both types of programs, she says, can be traced to the “free schools’’ and “freedom schools’’ of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The former, primarily serving suburban, white, middle-class youngsters, sought to simply provide a less restrictive, more stimulating educational alternative, she says. The latter, often operated by the National Urban League, were designed to help youngsters “for whom it was assumed schools never really worked,’' according to Ms. Raywid.

“What happened, I think, is that some schools began setting up these schools, instead, on the basis that these are a bunch of troublemakers and disruptive kids, and we’d like to get them out of here or at least contain them,’' she says.

“Those kinds of programs got a boost with enrollment declines and increasing dropout rates,’' she notes. “People began to worry about kids leaving schools and, rather than in-school suspensions, they thought, ‘Here’s a way to retain youngsters and provide a disruptive kid with a better environment than being out on the street.’''

But she adds that some experts have advanced a more cynical hypothesis: that the programs developed as a way to help schools retain state aid in the face of decreasing enrollments.

Revived Interest

Whatever their origins, however, such programs are not a new idea.

“It seems as though there’s a revival of interest in alternative schools every four or five years,’' notes Mr. Hamilton of Cornell.

According to a 1985 study by the U.S. Education Department’s office of educational research and improvement, 40 percent of the 900 junior and senior high schools surveyed provided some form of academic-assistance program or alternative school for disruptive students.

Typically, students with access to alternative schools were in large urban or suburban schools, the survey found.

According to the study, 46 percent of the administrators polled rated their alternative schools as “very effective’'; 41 percent said they were “somewhat effective.’'

Since the study was completed, a number of large school districts--in addition to Boston and Washington--have begun to explore a systemwide alternative-school option.

In Richmond, Va., for example, where the school system has developed a sophisticated network of special magnet-like schools that students can apply for, including “open’’ schools, a military school, and a vocational middle school, Superintendent Lois Harrison-Jones says that plans for an alternative program for disruptive students are on her drawing board as well.

“There is a gap,’' explains Nathaniel Lee, the city’s assistant superintendent of support services. “If a youngster doesn’t qualify for special education, there isn’t much available for the student who is simply ‘behaviorally disordered.’''

Under the school system’s current discipline code, he says, administrators have no choice but to expel or suspend students for serious violations of the rules.

But a proposal to open such a school in Prince George’s County, Md., this year was abandoned by the school board after minority groups claimed that the program would lead to the stigmatization and segregation of black students.

Do They Work?

The central question for educators, however, remains whether or not the alternative schools work. And answers to that question, say experts in the field, depend on the program’s goals.

In Florida, for example, researchers in the Governor’s office of planning and budgeting determined in 1981 that alternative programs in the state had largely failed to achieve the goals set forth in the legislation authorizing their funding.

According to a report prepared by the researchers, the purpose of such programs “must be proactive rather than reactive, stressing intervention before disinterested and unsuccessful students become disruptive or drop out.’'

The report concludes: “To date, this has not been true of most of Florida’s alternative programs.’'

In contrast, Mr. Hamilton of Cornell University, in a study of comprehensive alternative schools, has found that they hold promise as a means of preventing some students from dropping out.

To be successful, he says, such programs must operate on four basic principles: They must maintain “accurate and appropriate grounds for identifying students’'; the barriers between the special program and the regular school should be “no greater than necessary’'; parents and students should understand the selection process; and the program must be able to demonstrate to parents that the end result will be favorable.

In what may be the most comprehensive study on such schools to date, the Johns Hopkins researchers came up with mixed but generally optimistic evaluations of the programs they studied in 1982. Most promising, they found, was the fact that students in the best of the programs stayed in school longer than they otherwise might have.

“It’s one other possible intervention for reducing adolescent problem behavior,’' Ms. Gottfredson concludes.

“There’s every reason to believe it could work, but no reason to believe it always works.’'