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A Kappan Special Section on Alternative Schools: Reflections of an Alternative School Administrator.

Schools or programs that seek to serve the variety of youths and families in today's society should not be separated out as "alternatives," in Mr. McGee's view. Ensuring that all individuals have the opportunity to become successful is not an alternative - it is a necessity.

ALTERNATIVE schools in the 1960s and early 1970s emerged as idealistic havens. Although many of the students attending these schools may have been potential dropouts, the tendency was to fault "the system" for not meeting the needs of the students, rather than to blame the students for failing to conform to the system. Early alternative schools were designed to engage students who were "turned off" and had "tuned out." They did so by encouraging creativity and focusing on individuality and personal freedom. The students, and in many cases the staffs, of these schools believed it was acceptable, possibly even honorable, to choose not to be a part of the Establishment.

These early "alternatives" often allied themselves with the concept of progressive education, subscribing to the belief that education should focus on the whole child and should be heavily experiential in nature. The staffs of these schools encouraged students to "look within," to express themselves openly, and to participate in determining the focus and nature of the education they were to receive. Building on these concepts, early alternative schools often incorporated the phrase "Free School" or "Open School" into their names. Many of these original alternative schools continue to exist today. Two of the best-known examples are the Jefferson County Open School, now located in Lakewood, Colorado, and the St. Paul Open School, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The current situation for alternative education in the United States is somewhat different. Today's students face a myriad of personal and social problems that were not as prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. As an alternative school administrator, I am often asked about the type of student who attends my school. I always reply that the students at Hamilton Alternative School are students who, for whatever reason, have not been successful in the traditional school setting. Simply stated, the students who choose to come to Hamilton Alternative School have needs that can best be met in a school specifically designed to assist them in overcoming difficulties.

Many of the students at Hamilton Alternative School faced a variety of problems before they decided to leave their regular schools. Some of the issues confronting them include, but are not limited to, the following: some have parents who are divorced or were never wed; some lack support for education in the home; some suffer from financial instability and high mobility; some lack ties to the community, lack friends at school, and are not engaged in extracurricular or cocurricular activities; they have a history of academic failure; they have poor anger management; many are teen parents; many are victims of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; some are depressed, others have attempted suicide; many have been the victims of rape or other types of violence in their communities; many suffer from alcohol or drug addiction; some are former or present gang members; some suffer from poor health and have had little or no access to health care; many have experienced the loss of loved ones through premature death; many have alcoholic or drug-addicted parents. However disheartening this list may seem, I have found Hamilton Alternative students to be very resilient and quite capable of achieving success when presented with an appropriate educational environment.

Unfortunately, members of the general public - and many educators, as well - often define the students in alternative schools by the difficulties they face rather than by their ability to overcome these difficulties. There is a tendency to see potential dropouts not as "turned off" but rather as disruptive, deviant, and dysfunctional students who are a detriment to the traditional school. Today, alternative schools are no longer seen as creative outlets for students whose needs are not being met by traditional schools. Instead, they are perceived as places where disruptive students are sent in order to protect and benefit the students who remain in traditional schools.

This negative perception of alternative schools is one of the largest obstacles to the success of alternative education today. When alternative schools are viewed as "dumping grounds" and when the students in them are perceived as "problems" to be dealt with, alternative education itself is affected in a negative manner. The current negative image of the types of students entering alternative schools may limit the number and the diversity of students opting into alternative programs.

In my capacity as director of Hamilton Alternative School, I find myself constantly battling this negative image. Parents often call me and want to know if their son or daughter will be safe if he or she comes to the school. They also want to know if their youngster will receive a well-rounded education. The current negative image of alternative education is also shared by students in traditional schools and by the general community.

Students currently enrolled in alternative programs bear the brunt of this negative view of alternative schools. Hamilton Alternative students have told me they were reluctant to come to the school because they did not wish to be labeled as "behavior problems." A current student recently informed me that she has learned not to list the school on job applications because if she does, she is less likely to be employed. If alternative schools are to present true alternatives to the larger school setting, if they wish to develop well-rounded programs, and if they hope to help reduce the overwhelming number of students who are dropping out of school before receiving high school diplomas, they must be attractive to all students in need of the services that these unique settings provide.

Now is the time for all individuals concerned about the welfare of today's youths and the welfare of their communities to begin a campaign to earn positive recognition for alternative education. It is necessary to inform the public about the important role alternative schools play in our education system and in our society. If we wish to secure support and funding for the expansion of alternative education and to gain the cooperation of the entire community in addressing the needs of all students, we must convince the general public that alternative schools are successful with a wide variety of students.

The best means to accomplish this goal is to enlighten the public about the success alternative schools do have in meeting the needs of students who have not been successful in the traditional school setting. Hamilton Alternative School, like other well-designed programs, offers a wealth of data regarding the success alternative schools achieve with most students. This type of information should be widely distributed, in order to promote a positive image for alternative education.

Hamilton Alternative School has an "open door" policy. Parents, students from other schools, and all members of the school community are welcome to visit the program at any time. When visitors do come, they are often amazed at the type of students who greet them. Visitors have stated that they are surprised by how happy and content the students appear to be and how involved they are in learning. Visitors are also struck by the warmth and feeling of community that pervade the school.

Because of my concerns about the school's image, I was somewhat hesitant when the student editor from one of the five traditional high schools in the area asked me if she and some members of her staff could visit my school to do an article for their newspaper. My worries seemed justified when the teacher sponsor of this school newspaper informed me that one of the female reporters had told her that she was afraid to set foot in the school. "She was worried that it might be a 'Dangerous Minds' school full of druggies and gang members," the teacher told me, "and she was afraid she might get stabbed or something."

I was also concerned that high school students might not understand why the alternative school functioned as it did and might interpret the friendly atmosphere, high degree of student autonomy, and alternative approaches to curriculum as being soft or undemanding. Nevertheless, I have great confidence in the staff and students of Hamilton Alternative School and in the ability of the school to stand on its own.

So I gave my permission for the article to be written, and one morning three reporters and one photographer from the nearby school's newspaper staff showed up at Hamilton Alternative School prior to the start of classes. Their intention was for two of the reporters to shadow two Hamilton students for the entire day. The other reporter and the photographer planned to wander freely, interview students and staff, and take pictures throughout the day. This situation would cause some consternation for any school administrator, and I would have no say in the content of the article to be written and published at the sending high school.

I quickly approached two students and asked them if they would be willing to be shadowed for the day. I had previously alerted staff members that the visitors would be in the building and that the reporters were free to gather information as they saw fit. Two of the reporters interviewed me in the morning, and the photographer took my picture while I was visiting a classroom. The visitors also came by and thanked me before they left. But I had no idea what they were going to say about the school until several weeks later, when the newspaper was published and distributed at the nearby school.

The staff sponsor sent me a few complimentary copies of the issue. When I read the paper, it was not difficult to tell which student had been afraid to visit our school. In her article, she wrote:

Under normal circumstances, people intimidate me. I strolled into Hamilton on a Monday feeling apprehensive. I expected to be confronted by violent gang members, drug dealers, and a crowd of people less than happy to accept me. To the contrary, I felt more comfortable among Hamilton students than I do among teens I go to school with. They were polite, even taking time to shake hands with the students visiting their school. Operating on a first-name basis, including teachers, the Hamilton environment seemed more like a home than the prison I imagined.

Another student had this to say about the student she had shadowed for the day:

Eighteen-year-old senior Tami Smith (not her true name) could easily be the poster girl for success. She's a model student. She listens in class, gets her homework in on time, has 100% attendance, and has even volunteered to take an at-home independent study course in psychology. . . .

Two and a half years ago, however, things weren't going quite so well. Tami was a high school dropout. She had no credits, no future, and no family support. . . . Her only hope, a brand-new alternative school program. . . . [Hamilton Alternative School] has provided Tami not only with life skills and a chance to improve academically, but also with much-needed emotional support. . . . Tami has become so confident in her academic skills that she's planned a career as a physician.

These student reporters' perspectives are very meaningful. They show that all types of individuals hold negative views of alternative education but they can change these views by observing the reality of what is happening in many alternative schools.

Reporters from the local newspaper have also been invited to write stories about Hamilton Alternative. One local reporter opted to do a yearlong study of five students from the school. This reporter conducted in-depth interviews with the students and followed them in classes and on field trips. The ensuing series of articles ran in the paper two times each semester and had quite a following with the public. In fact, I would credit these articles with stimulating the growth the program has seen. In four years, the program has grown from serving 50 students to serving more than 150 students. The program has added a new middle school consisting of 30 eighth-grade students and will be adding a seventh-grade program in 2001-02.

Inviting the community - and the press, in particular - to visit a program is one way of changing the public's image of alternative education. It is also imperative, though sometimes difficult, for alternative schools to document their successes. Alternative programs focus on developing social skills or "life skills" as much as academic skills. Thus it is necessary that alternative schools find a means to document the personal growth of students.

For example, at the end of the 1998-99 school year, the staff at Hamilton Alternative School wanted to know if the students' self-esteem had improved. To find out, the staff first discussed the concept of self-esteem during our advisor/advisee periods, which we call "Oz." Oz meets every Friday for one hour, and it is here that we work with students in developing the heart, brains, and courage to become successful students and citizens. After discussing the concept of self- esteem, we gave students a survey asking, "Has your self-esteem improved over the past year? How did you come to this conclusion?"

Forty students responded to these questions. Twenty-nine students indicated that their self-esteem had improved. Comments from these 29 students included the following: "I can finally pass school again." "Hamilton has taught me a lot about responsibility." "I don't mind as much to come to school." "I learned respect and responsibility." "Because the school is one big team, everyone gets along with others." "I know how to control myself now." "I feel safer talking about my ideas." "I don't have such a negative attitude." "I know I must get along with people." "I feel better about myself because I get good grades." These sample responses clearly indicate that student self- esteem has been positively affected.

Although this information is important, many people still want to know what impact the school has had on students academically. Information regarding student academic performance is available in states that require statewide testing of students. However, the information is valid only if the students tested have been attending the alternative school for an extended period of time. In Indiana, the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP+) is administered in September to sophomore students and to older students who have not passed the exam. The results of these tests are printed in all local newspapers. This process is unfair to any alternative school, because much of the sophomore class is likely to be new to the school. However, in Indiana, students who fail the test in September and are getting close to graduation are allowed to take the test again in March. The group of students who are retested provide more reliable information regarding the success of alternative schools in increasing students' academic abilities.

At Hamilton Alternative School, 14 students who took the test in September 1998 were eligible to be retested in March 1999. Some of these students were retested in math only, others were retested in language arts only, and some were retested in both areas. In Indiana, a five-point increase in a student's test score is considered significant. For Hamilton Alternative students who were retested in March, the average increase for language arts was 27 points, and the average increase for math was 28.6 points. The greatest increase in language arts was 52 points; the smallest increase was 14 points. The greatest increase in math was 56 points; the smallest increase was eight points. One of the retested students had taken the test for the first time in September 1997. In a little over a year and a half, this student had increased her ISTEP score by 77 points in language arts and by 55 points in math.

The above data are a good example of the type of information worth sharing with the public. Such information can serve to improve the image of alternative education and is an indication of the improvement that all students can achieve in a well-designed program. Despite this overwhelming evidence that alternative schools can and do make a difference with many students, it is also true that no one school or program can succeed without the support of the entire community.

Hamilton Alternative School is a school of choice. The school is well funded and exists in a good facility. In addition, the school employs an adequate number of well-trained, caring individuals and benefits from a high degree of support from the community and from business partnerships. The school offers a wide range of programs to meet the needs of the variety of students enrolled. However, the school is unable to meet the needs of all the students who choose to enroll.

During the 1999-2000 school year, 163 students were served by Hamilton Alternative School. Of these, only 89 students successfully completed the school year. Of the 74 students who are no longer at the school, only 43 can be accounted for: 14 students graduated with high school diplomas, four returned to their sending schools, 12 enrolled in adult secondary credit programs, and 13 enrolled in GED preparation classes. Thirty-one of the 163 students served in 1999-2000 are unaccounted for. It is possible that some of these students are engaged in adult education, GED (General Education Development), or other programs; however, the school has been unable to document whether or not these students have earned their high school diplomas.

What are these 31 individuals doing now? How are they making a living? Many of the students who are no longer with the program entered Hamilton Alternative School knowing that they probably would not graduate. They were 17 or 18 years old and had fewer than 10 of the 40 credits required for graduation. In fact, when interviewing and enrolling many of these students, the staff of the school realized that they would not remain with the program long enough to graduate. Nonetheless, the staff believes that even one grading period spent at the school will increase any student's likelihood of becoming successful in life. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that the school cannot fully serve every student accepted into the program.

During my tenure as the director of Hamilton Alternative School, it has become evident that a communitywide effort is necessary to address the needs of today's students and families. It is possible for any community to attain a high school graduation rate of close to 100%. However, to achieve this, the community must present a unified system of social and educational services and must work toward economic equity for all its citizens.

There is a need for more and different types of alternative schools. We need to develop an "options loaded" system - a system of magnet schools, vocational/technical schools, traditional schools, programs for students who have been suspended or expelled, and many other types of alternative programs. Alternatives are needed for elementary, middle school, and high school students who are not successful in traditional school settings.

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy tells us that, if people's basic needs are not met, they will not be able to focus on higher-order needs. Basic needs include shelter, clothing, food, a safe environment, acceptance by others, and a feeling of being cared about, needed, and loved. Alternative schools strive to meet these basic needs by developing an informal, caring environment. You often hear the words "community" and "sense of family" in reference to successful alternative schools. However, alternative schools cannot do it all on their own. Educators and civic leaders must work together to reach out to individuals in their homes and neighborhoods.

When I was selected to become the director of Hamilton Learning Center in 1997, I accepted the position with the condition that the name of the school be changed to Hamilton Alternative School. I wanted everyone to know that this would be a school that offered an "alternative education" because I was proud of being associated with the history and traditions of the field. Today, after gaining experience as an alternative school administrator, I feel differently about being associated with "alternative" education. This shift in my thinking is partly due to the negative connotations associated with alternative education, which must be addressed and changed. However, the larger and more compelling reason for my new attitude is that I do not believe that schools or programs that seek to serve the variety of youths and families in today's society should be separated out as "alternatives." Ensuring that all individuals have the opportunity to become successful is not an alternative - it is a necessity.

JAY McGEE is the director of Hamilton Alternative School, South Bend Community School Corporation, South Bend, Ind.
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Author:McGee, Jay
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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