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Alternative Ed: Segregation or Solution?

Next spring, Tenesha Anderson will leave high school with two things she was not sure she would ever get: a diploma and a career.

After graduating from Aspen Alternative High School in south suburban Robbins, the 19-year-old senior will study at Moraine Valley Community College, in Palos Hills, to be a medical technician.

"I kind of got kicked out," she said of her old school, Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in nearby Blue Island. "I was getting in trouble all the time." But the smaller class sizes and closer supervision at Aspen has kept Anderson focused.

This January state officials will implement the Alternative Learning Opportunities Law, a new measure they hope will serve more youth with similar challenges.

Currently, alternative schools serve students like Anderson who have not succeeded in traditional classrooms--those who've been expelled, chronic truants, dropouts and pregnant girls. But the new law will allow districts to get state approval to place children defined as "at-risk of academic failure" in alternative programs.

Critics said the law is a radical expansion of alternative education and part of a troubling trend of separating struggling students from their regular classrooms. They also warn that the law is vague, and was developed without the help of advocates and parents, which they find even more worrisome, given that one of the biggest changes to state education policy is just over the horizon. Governor George H. Ryan has assembled a task force to overhaul the Illinois School Code, the body of law that governs 4,290 public schools and more than 2 million students statewide.

Although parent advocates and other groups said they were belatedly invited to advise Ryan on the school code, Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Chicago-based Parents United for Responsible Education, said the effort is "top-loaded with [education] providers and lawyers" and "not a whole lot of representatives who advocate for children and families."

The new law has also sharpened an ongoing debate over the direction of alternative education, The Chicago Reporter has found. The law is one of a series, including the 1995 Alternative Public Schools Act, that have diverted alternative education from its original mission, according to school reform advocates, parents groups and civil rights organizations. They fear that, rather than helping students with special needs, the new programs or schools could result in segregation.

"It just all seemed like another convenient tool for [the] discarding of more and more children at a very young age who were considered too needy, or troubled, or, worse yet, troublesome," said Michelle Light, an attorney with the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern University Legal Clinic. "And, of course, those children would be mostly poor and minority."

Others discount the threat of segregation. "I don't accept that," said Martin L. Barrett, regional superintendent of schools for downstate Champaign and Ford counties. He chairs the Alternative Education Coalition, whose 46 members, mostly school superintendents, state officials and alternative education providers, came together to draft the original legislation.

While the new law gives local districts more control, Barrett and other state officials said it offers schools an opportunity to craft programs for students who might otherwise fail behind, and possibly drop out.

But research has shown minority students can be misidentified. According to a 2001 study on special education, which is meant to serve students with disabilities, by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, black students in Illinois were three times more likely to be identified as "mentally retarded" and twice as likely to be categorized as "emotionally disturbed."

Months of wrangling over the legislation between the Illinois State Board of Education and activists have also raised questions about how education policy is put together.

Opponents said they did not find out about the legislation until the first round of votes had been taken in the state House.

But an alarm went off "once someone bothered to read it and understand the implications," said Laurene Heybach, director of The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which advocates for homeless schoolchildren.

"In hindsight we should have involved those [advocacy] groups from the beginning," said Sheila Radford-Hill, division administrator of the state board's Alternative Learning Partnership Division, which oversees state-funded alternative education.

After protests, legislators made changes to the original bill that they say will help protect poor and minority students from being unfairly segregated.

As the debate continues, Aspen's Anderson has clear advice for both school officials and activists. "They should ask [students], 'Do you want to go to an alternative school?' If a student says they want to stay [in their old] school, [they] should give them a chance."

Classmates agreed. Melissa Sineni, an 18-year-old senior with sandy blond hair, was nine months pregnant when she talked with the Reporter in late October. She came to Aspen after missing too many days at her previous school. "I don't think they should just throw them out," she said.

Do Something

The state's alternative education plan was sailing quietly through the Illinois House in mid-March, Light said, when she found out about it. The 21-member Elementary & Secondary Education Committee had unanimously passed the bill on March 8.

Programs statewide provide alternative education to children as young as 6, and some address chronic truancy. But most serve middle and high school students who have been expelled or have dropped out. The new law will allow local districts to create alternative programs for children down to fourth grade, if their school labels them "at-risk of academic failure."

In March, when the board presented their legislation to the education committee, the definition of "at-risk" included those with "serious academic, personal, economic, or social impediments." The impediments cited included "involvement" with the police or courts, chronic illness, poor nutrition, economic disadvantage, substance abuse and pregnancy.

Although local districts can decide which children fit those criteria, they need state approval to reassign students to separate classrooms or facilities.

"Turning page after page of the original bill, it simply made me sad and angry. I had to do something," Light said.

Light made a flurry of calls to other activists, including Heybach. By mid-April they had formed a coalition that included several school reform groups, the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Voices for Illinois Children, a statewide advocacy organization.

Meanwhile, the legislation, after no debate, unanimously passed the House on March 27. By late April, Light said, the groups were ready to testify before the 10-member Illinois Senate Education Committee, the bill's next stop.

Activists interviewed by the Reporter said they regard alternative education with suspicion. Heybach said some homeless children were once kept in separate Chicago Public Schools classrooms. In 1996 the system banned the practice. But Heybach said she remains concerned because separate schools "have come back into vogue."

Given those concerns, some legislators acknowledge they may have moved too fast. "I thought it would be a relatively simple bill," said state Rep. Arthur Turner, a West Side Democrat who co-sponsored the bill. He said he was "caught off-guard" by the strong objections.

Barrett said critics sometimes misinterpret the intent behind such programs.

"I understand that people don't trust school districts," Barrett said. But "we all want the same thing--solid, decent programs for our kids."

Moving Fast

The redefinition of alternative education began simply, said Radford-Hill. A 1997-98 state board audit found that 27 districts, ranging from northwest suburban Elgin to downstate Belvidere, had alternative programs, including evening high schools, that failed to provide five hours of daily instruction, as required by law. That meant the programs were in danger of losing state aid. Originally, officials planned to draft a bill granting an exemption, she said.

But after talking to school superintendents, the board decided to go "forward with a more comprehensive plan," she said. "We saw it as an effort to improve alternative [education] throughout the state."

Board officials formed the Alternative Education Coalition to draft legislation. "We thought the people most directly affected" were school superintendents, social service providers and alternative program directors, Radford-Hill said.

Child advocates, parent groups and civil rights organizations were not consulted, light said, and the coalition "didn't seem to include people who might disagree."

State officials moved quickly. According to the minutes of their first meeting, held in Springfield on April 26, 2000, the group felt that "the window is open now but we have a limited timeline." The coalition planned "a legislative framework by June 30, 2000," and introduction of a bill by January 2001. It met four times between April and January.

Legislators Balk

From March to June of this year, Light said, the opponents engaged in a furious lobbying campaign to stop the legislation.

Initial contacts with state officials were not promising, Heybach said. The board "went into a pretty non-compromising stance," she said. "We were really getting hard-bailed by the [board] lobbyist not wanting to change anything."

Radford-Hill said the board "determined we couldn't make the changes in the form they wanted. It didn't mean we wouldn't respond."

Turner said he didn't hear from critics until late in the game. "No one brought to me the opposing point of view" until after the first vote, he said. "Truly, the bill did not get all the needed debate." He said he supported the legislation because he admired the work of two alternative schools in his district and saw an opportunity to reach more students.

Once the opposing views were brought to legislators, critics said, state Sen. Lisa Madigan played a key role in forcing the board to compromise on the "at-risk" definition that troubled opponents. Madigan, a North Side Chicago Democrat, serves on the Senate Education Committee.

Madigan said that, with her colleague's support, including Republican Sen. Dan Cronin of west suburban Elmhurst, another member of the Senate Education Committee, she told the board "the bill was not going to move unless this was worked out."

Radford-Hill said Madigan and other senators told the board they "had some concerns with the bill and wanted us to try and work out some language we all felt comfortable with and we did that."

In response, the state agreed to cut the "at-risk" definition and offered two amendments--one mandating parental consent before a student is assigned to an alternative program, the other allowing students to return to their original classes if parents withdraw consent.

Still, Benjamin S. Wolf, director of the ACLU's Chicago-based Children's & Institutionalized Persons Project, said the change falls short. Many parents are "relatively uneducated and [when] the principal says, 'We can do better for Johnny over here, sign this,'" they will agree, he said.

The ACLU wants the school to advise parents of their child's need for an alternative program, the program's content and the school's plan for returning them to a regular classroom. Also, the school code should state that students have the right to learn in an ordinary classroom, Wolf said.

The new provisions satisfied some opponents, including Voices for Illinois Children, by allowing evening alternative education programs to continue and providing "necessary safeguards" for new programs, said Voices president Jerry Stermer. The measure passed unanimously in the Senate on May 18.

The House gave final approval by a 9710 vote before the governor signed the bill into law on June 29. Another seven representatives voted "present."

Nine of the opponents were members of the Illinois House Legislative Black Caucus. Although she voted for the bill when it first came to the House floor, state Rep. Monique Davis, a Southwest Side Democrat, said she was "shocked" to discover it would allow fourth-graders into the alternative programs. Davis, who taught in a South Side public school for nearly 20 years, thinks the board means well, but said it's a mistake to label young children. Many who are "not doing well in the fourth grade shoot up in the sixth."

Lessons Learned

State officials, including Radford-Hill and Barrett, said such criticisms improved the legislation. Although "the major thrust of the bill" was not altered, "the amendments were wonderful," Barrett said. "I think the opposition made the bill much stronger."

But advocates said they fear their work has not changed the state's way of doing business. They point to Ryan's pledge to create the task force charged with rewriting the state school code.

In September Ryan appointed Heybach and representatives of other advocacy groups to serve on committees that advise the task force. But Heybach is concerned they won't have any real influence.

State information about task force members was slow to arrive, she said, making it difficult for others to give input.

The state's approach is "low-profile," Woestehoff said. "There is a lot of lawmaking going on that we don't know about."

Paul Green, director of Roosevelt University's School of Policy Studies, said "if there is enough juice behind something, it can pass very fast." But, he notes, "the General Assembly is a very tough place to keep a secret."

Hazel E. Loucks, Ryan's deputy governor for education, said only groups "who come forward" can take part in the deliberations. The task force will issue a report to the new governor in January 2003.

But even groups who've long worked in Springfield said it is difficult to keep an eye on the goings-on in state government "We have relationships up and down the state with a variety of people," said Stermer. Voices for Illinois Children has a $2.7 million annual budget and a part-time Springfield lobbyist. But Stermer said he heard about the controversial legislation at the same time as other advocacy groups.

"I completely agree with those who say it sometimes feels like our voices are not welcome," Stermer said. Still, he argues, the alternative bill's problems were "ultimately overcome. In my many years down there, I've found that if someone raises an objection, they're listened to."

Some of the burden rests on legislators, he added. "When they see a bill like [the alternative education bill] going through, and the staff says it's okay, they should say, 'I won't vote on it unless I run it by'" experts on children's issues. It is their responsibility to "know the thoughtful people in the community."

Rep. Madigan agreed and echoed Turner's concerns. Groups proposing legislation should reach out from the beginning, she said. Most often, "organizations will introduce a bill [and] it's only at that point you find out people are against it."

Last Chance

The 1995 Alternative Public Schools Act, also known as the safe schools law, allowed districts to set up separate schools for students with disciplinary problems and expanded alternative education. In the past five years, more than 100 regional "safe school" sites have opened, including six in Chicago. Their original aim, of providing services for students with special needs, has effectively pushed unwanted students out the door, critics charge.

In Chicago, expelled students are disproportionately African American, the Reporter found. Since the law took effect, the number of students expelled has increased from 80 in the 1995-1996 school year to 737 in 1998-1999, state records show. In the latter year, 73 percent of the expelled students were African American and 18 percent were Latino. African Americans made up about 53 percent of students in the Chicago Public Schools that year, according to state board figures. Thirty-three percent of students were Latino.

"It's coming full circle from when I came in," said Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network since 1973. The network provides training and other services to 25 middle and high schools in Chicago, most serving former dropouts, and advocates on their behalf. In the '70s, Wuest said, alternative schools were considered "dumping grounds" for "problem kids." And "that's where it's going again."

Radford-Hill disagreed. She said she believes students will be protected by the law's requirement that any plan be based on research showing it will send them back into the mainstream.

Radford-Hill said that so far only a few school districts have expressed an interest in developing programs under the new law, but she expects the number to increase as superintendents learn about it.

Nathaniel Anderson, superintendent of East St. Louis School District 189, has big plans. The district has three middle schools in the downstate, mostly African American city, with an average of 800 students in each. Overall, about 86 percent of the system's children are classified as low-income, according to state figures. Anderson wants an alternative school for as many as 250 of the district's students who have chronic truancy or behavioral problems.

Although his plans seem to embody opponents' fears, Anderson defended them.

"I'm not talking about putting kids and leaving them at the alternative school," he said. "We're talking about students we can remediate and get them back into the normal flow."

Barrett, of the Alternative Education Coalition, pledged that districts are "not going to go out and design some fly-by-night programs. ... We just can't go out there and say this looks good."

But many of the law's supporters worry the state hasn't committed enough dollars to make a difference. The legislature allocated $1 million for programs or schools established in 2002. The board originally asked for $3 million, Radford-Hill said.

Barrett claims funding won't be a problem for other districts starting alternative programs. The state guarantees alternative students "the same monetary support" given to their peers in the same district. Districts receive general state aid, based on a set formula, for each student, and they can use that money to fund alternative programs, Radford-Hill said.

Aspen is funded by south suburban Community High School District 218. The district sends its students with attendance problems to the Robbins alternative school. These students comprise the majority of Aspen's 110 students, said Ken Freeman, the school's principal and a member of the Alternative Education Coalition.

Freeman, a genial man who usually walks the halls of his neat, red brick school and calls students by name, said he expects "most school districts will have to fund [new alternative programs] themselves."

Freeman also touts his school's academic achievements. Anderson and her classmates, Radford-Hill confirmed, are among the few alternative students in the state who take core courses like English, math, social studies and science in small classes taught by certified teachers.

"There is a fundamental problem of school districts relying on a property tax base," Radford-Hill said. "Alternative programs will not solve that problem," but smaller or poorer districts could combine resources to create a program "better funded than an individual school district trying to take this on their own."

Despite his school's successes, Nathan Kelly, a 17-year-old senior at Aspen, said he still faces stereotypes. "Everybody says you're a bad kid or you're stupid" if they find out you attend an alternative school, he said. A wiry young man with a serious demeanor, he does not consider Aspen a dumping ground, but a place to make a fresh start.

"Everyone knows this is basically our last chance," Kelly said. "We're still trying."

[Graph omitted]
Safe Schools

African American students are over-represented among the state's 3,978
students in "safe schools," separate schools for students with
discliplinary problems. Since 1995, when Illinois first allowed local
districts create them, more than 100 safe schools have opened statewide,
six in Chicago.

 Students in All Illinois
 Public Schools Students in Safe Schools

White 61% 56%
Black 21% 30%
Latino 15% 11%
Other 3% 3%

Source: Illinois State Board of Education; analyzed by The Chicago

Note: Table made from bar grpah
COPYRIGHT 2001 Community Renewal Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:debate over alternative education legislation, Illinois
Author:Holmquist, Micah
Publication:The Chicago Reporter
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Nov 1, 2001
Previous Article:Illinois First: Swing Districts Favored over Minority Areas.
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