Equity & Diversity Opinion

John Thompson: What Can We Learn From Alternative Schools?

By Anthony Cody — June 27, 2013 3 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

Education Week’s special edition, “Second Chance: Turning Dropouts into Graduates,” reports that the nation’s graduation rate has increased to nearly 75%, and it may be approaching our all-time high point. This good news is the result of innovations that are the antithesis of test-driven “reform.” They point the way towards humane policies that could be the cornerstone of the next era of school improvement.

One of the successes was described by Lesli Maxwell, in “Chicago Charter Network Specializes in Dropouts.” These schools began in 1972 and they have “mostly kept their distinctive instructional approaches and practices for re-engaging students.” For instance, students are captivated by aquaponics, or the raising of fish in a sustainable urban food network. This is precisely the type of project based learning that teachers used to see as a real reform, as opposed to the faux “reform” of high-stakes testing.

Ironically, these hands-on, real-world methods of making school relevant have helped save the bacon of data-driven “reformers.” Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett says that the network reduced the system’s dropout rate by 7% over the past decade. Even so, Elaine Allensworth of the Chicago Consortium on School Research explains that these alternative schools are just a drop in the bucket in comparison to the need.

As test-driven, output-driven accountability fails to address the achievement gap, calls will grow for a evidence-driven effort to close the “Opportunity Gap.” Education Week describes the types of supports that are necessary for actually improving outcomes for poor children, as opposed to playing statistical games and settling scores against teachers. Rather than narrowing the curriculum and focusing on basic skills instruction, alternative schools have shown success by starting at the “human level.” They link instruction to the workplace. They build on students’ interests in emerging technologies such as sound-engineering and other audio software used in the music industry.

These alternative schools can serve a dual purpose by housing child care centers that give early education opportunities for students’ children. Dropout prevention schools are still allowed to act on the traditional wisdom that trusting relationships and mentoring are the keys to academic success. In contrast with the intense focus on remediation that has come from NCLB-type accountability, they build on students’ strengths.

Speaking of which, it was a joy to read a special issue that barely used the word “accountability.” In fact, just about the only references to that term was in discussions of how difficult it is to hold alternative schools accountable.

Finally, another key lesson is that at-risk students often need multiple opportunities for success. Recovery programs have shown success for students as old as 26-years-old. Often, these programs use “soft technology” or social media to bring students back to classrooms. Door-to-door campaigns and other personal contacts are necessary.

And that leads to the next frontier. We need to build on the lessons learned - and relearned - by re-engagement centers, dropout recovery programs, and alternative schools. Russell Rumsberger, the director of the California Dropout Research Project, explains that we must turn these pockets of promise into a comprehensive strategy. In doing so, I would hope, we would gains allies in the battle to restore engaging and authentic instruction in under-the-gun neighborhood schools.

What do you think? What can we learn from schools such as these?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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