Almost 40 years ago, I helped found an alternative high school for dropouts in Newark, N.J. Though the term was unknown then, our school was essentially “chartered” by the state of New Jersey as a tuition-free private high school. We charged no tuition because the U.S. Department of Justice’s Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and several local foundations supported the school as an experiment in juvenile-delinquency prevention. Thus, our only selection criteria were that all our students had to have left high school without graduating and had to have at least one arrest and conviction on their juvenile records. (Across the years of our federal funding, the school reduced recidivism to about 6 percent, a quite remarkable achievement.)
Our school offered a core curriculum of reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, and (occasionally) science, with popular electives in art, music, pottery, carpentry, and photography. We also developed an extensive counseling component and a work-study internship cycle. Because at least 10 percent of our students read at primary-grade levels, we established a reading lab to teach basic literacy skills. What we learned in our start-up years was how much our students required intensive academic interventions to develop the skills they’d never learned.
After the school’s first few years, our students began considering college as a possible next step. So we developed tutoring programs to prepare them for taking the SAT, and instituted a college-advising program to help students choose, and successfully apply to, local (and occasionally national) colleges.
Education historians tend to perceive the alternative high school movement as a reform blip. But it was more.
Our initial SAT results shocked us. While our students from suburban and Catholic school backgrounds did reasonably well, most of those from Newark public schools did terribly. We saw little evidence that our school’s efforts had made a significant difference. Gradually, we learned how to make our SAT tutoring more effective, and results improved incrementally. We also developed efforts to persuade college-admissions officers that our students’ strengths were not reflected in their SAT scores.
Our students’ subsequent college experiences were quite difficult. Economic hardship often intervened; many were forced into start-stop college-going patterns by the necessities of work. But too many of our graduates also were unprepared for the extent of reading that colleges required, and they had not developed the writing skills necessary to succeed academically.
As teachers, we knew that we had changed most of our students’ attitudes toward learning, and that we had altered, for the good, their perceptions of their intellectual and aesthetic capacities. We also knew that achieving high school diplomas had changed for these students what had threatened to become destructive or limiting life trajectories. But what our school contributed to improving students’ academic abilities was not enough to counteract the effects of their inadequate prior education.
Although my high school still survives, most alternative high schools disappeared after less than a decade. Education historians tend to perceive the alternative high school movement as a reform blip that failed to affect the traditional regularities of American public education. But it is worth considering whether the charter movement will eventually experience the fate of the alternative school movement. There are, after all, many similarities.
Like charter schools, most alternative schools were state-created and relatively unconstrained by local district governance. The trade-off at the core of the charter school philosophy—autonomy for effectiveness—was the crux of our alternative high school belief. Our staff was convinced we could provide a more effective learning environment than the traditional high schools our students had left. Moreover, we believed that though our students had been tracked for failure, our creative, responsive, and nontraditional efforts could inspire them to achieve educational success.
Like charter schools, most alternative schools were initiated by groups of teachers and parents (and sometimes students) committed to implementing a more personalized school organization, expansive curricula, and differentiated instruction. Like those in charters, most staff members at alternative schools were young, inexperienced, and vulnerable to constant burnout and turnover. Our alternative school struggled, as charter schools do now, to find and retain experienced and effective teachers, especially in math and science.
Alternative schools also struggled, as charter schools do, with issues of adequate space and chronic funding shortfalls, as well as with how to manage critical operations issues such as insurance, payroll, taxes, accounting, and audits. Alternative schools grappled, too, with the curriculum-development issues that so concern today’s charter schools, such as how to differentiate and sustain instructional programs that effectively meet students’ multiple academic and developmental needs.
Most important, alternative schools struggled, as charter schools now do, to reduce the gap between academic aspirations and achievement outcomes. This struggle often produced only limited results. Though no large-scale evaluation of the nation’s alternative schools was ever implemented, I suspect that the results of such an study would have been similar to what most assessments of charter school achievement outcomes have found: little difference from the outcomes of comparable public schools.
Given these similarities, can we predict that the charter school movement will simply run its course and contribute as little permanent change to American education as the alternative school movement has? The evolution of alternative schools in New York City suggests a more complex outcome.
Can we predict that the charter school movement will simply run its course and contribute little permanent change to American education?
Several New York City alternative high schools, initiated as independent institutions in the 1960s, were absorbed into the city school system and became publicly run second-chance schools designed to rescue and recuperate high school dropouts. These schools helped spawn other second-chance schools, and by the mid-1980s, some 20 New York City public alternative high schools were targeting students who had given up on traditional schooling, but not on their high school education.
A series of evaluations in the 1980s indicated that the city’s alternative high school sector was producing achievement outcomes, primarily graduation rates, equivalent to, if not better than, those of the large comprehensive high schools that far too many city students were leaving before graduation. In the early 1990s, two school reform organizations, New Visions for Public Schools (then called the Fund for New York City Public Education) and the Center for Collaborative Education (then the New York City affiliate of the national Coalition of Essential Schools), worked with the city school system to create and support some 30 new small high schools. These schools were based on the characteristics of the alternative high school sector—small school size, a differentiated core curriculum, block programming, “advisories” and other forms of intensive staff-student interaction, and school-based professional development.
Since the early 1990s, New York City has developed more than 200 such small high schools, and these schools have spurred a national small-high-schools effort. In New York City, this movement has supported the progeny of those original alternative schools by providing curriculum and professional development, community sponsorship, support for college-going, and a stronger theme focus. Thus, the small high schools that have been created since the 1990s, as well as the current national movement toward smaller high schools, can trace their origins to the alternative schools movement of the 1960s. And they owe it a debt of gratitude.
Even at the zenith of that movement, no one would have predicted this kind of influence across the succeeding decades. Perhaps, in its arc of development, the charter school movement will contribute similarly unpredictable outcomes in the continuing reform of American public education.