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Intellectual indignation: getting at the roots of student resistance in an alternative high school program.


Mention of the term "alternative education" evokes a variety of responses from a variety of perspectives. This variety implies that there is a belief in more than one effective way to educate children. Alternative suggests an approach different from the "norm". However, for many, alternative means education for "bad kids", plain and simple. The term is often connected with delinquent children. This was reflected in a review of the literature on alternative education, a large portion of which dealt with programs associated with the juvenile justice system (e.g. Bikerstaf, 1997; Ball, 1997; Herbst, 1987; Mesinger, 1986).

In terms of the history of alternative education, it can be traced at least as far back as John Dewey and his "radical" ideas on progressive education. In terms of an organized movement (albeit a loose organization), however, the 1960's and 70's are generally seen as the beginning (Neumann, 1994). Neumann(1994) writes that what alternative schools generally have in common is "the centrality of the learner and his or her experience, the importance of personal meaning, and a repudiation that there is one best way to educate all students" (pg. 548). In fact, as Sanoff (1994) writes, "the very high rate of high school dropouts each year supports the assertion that standard offerings do not meet the needs of all students" (pg. 97).

Alternative education has taken many different forms in terms of structure (separate schools, schools-within-schools, and part-time programs) and have been developed with as many philosophies including, but not limited to, theme based, culturally-centered, and religiously-affiliated. Alternative programs are sometimes designed to promote a particular philosophy, but are often for the student who has been "unsuccessful" in the typical or mainstream educational setting; students identified as "at-risk" (Freisen, et al, 1999). The present study focuses on the latter.

In this study, I will examine one alternative education program in particular. First, I will provide background information on the program, how I came to be involved with it, and the method of data collection.


Branton Institute (BI) is a small, full day, one year, alternative program associated with the Baldwin Public School district located in a suburb of a mid-western city. Although Baldwin High School(BH) is approximately 50% African American and 50% European American, Branton Institute, its alternative program, is overwhelmingly African American and male.

Underachieving but capable students are invited to Branton Institute primarily from the eighth grade class of the high school's feeder elementary program, the ninth and on rare occasions, the tenth grade of Baldwin High School. Of the four categories of programs for "at risk" students outlined by Duke and Canady (1991), Branton would be considered a remediation program. "The purpose of a remedial/compensatory programs is to intervene in the regular educational program of at-risk students in order to correct learning deficiencies and increase the odds that students will improve their performance in conventional classroom settings" (pg. 58). The mantra of Branton Institute community is "a second chance". This program is viewed as providing a second chance to experience academic success at Baldwin High.

Although students are invited, the decision to attend is left to the families. The capacity is set at 75 students. Sixty-four students accepted the challenge. The first school year ended with 57 students.

When studying an alternative school, one of the first questions that comes to my mind is "what's different about it". Sanoff(1994) suggests that alternative schools "must involve choice and they must be different from the standard school in the community" (pg.98). I would find over the course of the year that what was different related primarily to class size, teachers' attitudes, and the physical space. The curriculum could be categorized as very traditional. The same was true for the approach to teaching, with a few notable exceptions. Although there is a great deal of discussion in the literature on the education of African American children (see Delpit, 1995, Ladson-Billings, 1999, Kunjufu, 1985, Shujaa, 1996), from my observations and the data collected, BI adopted no model which specifically addressed the vast majority of their population; African Americans. The students resisted this traditional approach to their education. They had different expectations for this school. Over the course of my visits, I would discover just how many of the children didn't want to be there. If I had to choose one word to describe the atmosphere it would be "resistance". This resistance, and the adult response to it, would threaten the creation of a strong positive ethos, which Grant (1988) argues can be the difference between a school that works and one that does not.


I was brought into the Branton Institute project to provide a qualitative evaluation of the first year of the program. I met with the faculty prior to the opening of the school to discuss my planned approach to the collection of the data which would be used in the evaluation. I took a phenomenological approach to this single site case study (Bogdan and Biklen, 1998). If we are committed to alternative education that works for children, I believed it would be important to seek an understanding of the perspectives of the people directly involved; teachers, students and administrators.

I visited the school on approximately 25 occasions. To enhance validity, a combination of methods was used to collect data from teachers, students and the administrator (Glesne, 1999). Each of the 5 teachers was interviewed once formally and informal interviews took place on the occasion of each visit.

All of the teachers allowed me to observe their classes on each visit. On some days I followed a class of students to observe their experiences with each teacher and in each class room. On other days I would stay with the same teacher for the entire visit to observe the interaction between that teacher and a variety of students.

Students were observed and interviewed. Six students participated in individual interviews. This number, approximately ten percent of the total student body, reflects the number of students who returned signed informed consent forms. 45 students participated in focus groups, facilitated by me, in the absence of any school personnel, at the end of the school year.

The administrator was interviewed both formally and informally on multiple occasions throughout the school year. Additionally, school documents such as attendance and grade statistics, student work, and district newsletters, were gathered and analyzed.

The differing perceptions evident between teachers and students would be the basis for the intellectual indignation expressed by the students; a particular brand of resistance which will be explored in depth throughout this paper.

In the section which follows, I will present the literature which addresses student resistance within schools and locate the present study within this literature.

Conceptual Framework

A search of the ERIC database yielded eighteen articles on student resistance, several of which dealt with student resistance to subject matter (e.g. Moore, 1997; Keeley, 1995; Wolff, 1994). My interest, however, as framed by the data collected over the span of one academic year, is in a more general kind of student resistance; resistance to the structure of schooling; particularly as it is experienced in an alternative high school. Miron and Lauria (1995) write about identity politics and student resistance. They discuss students' engagement in political and collective forms of resistance. This phenomenon will frame my discussion of the students and Branton Institute. While the students at Branton were not "organized" resistors whose actions would be considered "collective" by casual observers, there were, most certainly, ways of thinking about and analyzing their experiences at Branton which were shared by large numbers of students. A great deal of this thought and analysis was related to students' identity and the politics of shaping and reshaping those multifaceted identities. I will use this framework as a backdrop for my discussion of students in an alternative school and how they struggle with the labels attached to them based on their participation in this particular alternative program. Resistance within this framework is not viewed as an innately negative phenomenon. Similarly, MacLeod's (1995) ethnography looks at resistance as rooted in "political and moral indignation" rather than "psychological dysfunction". MacLeod draws from Giroux's (1983) work on this alternative view of resistance. Giroux critiques any over-reliance on reproduction theory with its corollary absence of discussions of human agency. I agree with him to an extent. But the real issue, as I see it, is what students in schools believe. If they believe they have no control over their own destinies, they cannot exert that perceived non-existent control. Resistance within that set of beliefs is futile. What I will describe in the following pages, is what occurred at Branton Institute when students began to resist. These data reveal what I will call "intellectual indignation".

Resistance and Rationale

It would become impossible to tell the story of student perceptions without discussing the concept of resistance. Resistance was a major theme that emerged from the analysis of my observations at Branton Institute.

Henry Giroux (1983) argues that most educational studies assume that students are nonresistant recipients of instruction and that they can be easily managed by the school. MacLeod (1995) in Ain't No Makin' It, writes "resistance theory examines the ongoing, active experiences of individuals while simultaneously perceiving in oppositional attitudes and practices a response to structures of constraints and domination" (pg. 19).

Aronowitz (1985) writes that "conservative educators analyzed oppositional behavior primarily through psychological categories that served to define such behavior not only as deviant, but more importantly as disruptive and inferior - a failing on the part of the individuals and the social groups that exhibit it"

Patrick Solomon (1992) speaks specifically about Black Canadian resistance in high school. However, his discussion on the school as an arena of conflict is relevant to the case of Branton Institute.

Each of these discussions of resistance is significant to the study of Branton Institute. Admissions of resistance surfaced continually throughout structured and informal discussions with the students. In some instances, students went so far as to use the term explicitly.

According to teacher feedback, there are at least three categories for the resistance at Branton Institute; verbal expression, passive aggressive behavior, and aggressive behavior. These terms suggest a level of pathology which is in keeping with the way resistance was typically viewed here. The verbal expression began on the first day of school. Many students blatantly expressed dissatisfaction with the school, the teachers and the situation overall. They complained of teacher attitudes, the size of the school, the length of the classes and the number of students. One of the teachers described resistance this way:
   When I first got here, it was like they didn't want to be here. Almost all
   of them feel like this was like, we're being dumped here. And peers were
   looking at them as if they were underachievers. People were talking and
   cursing and what have you so, they brought all that with them when they got
   here the first week or two.

This teacher categorizes these passive aggressive and aggressive reactions from the students as frustrating but is able to contextualize it within the real experiences of the students. Another teacher feels that the goals of the school are not being met and states:
   I think the first quarter we were fighting so much resistance. I feel
   better now. I can see a little bit of progress. But it's just like no
   matter what you do, it's a battle.

Much of this resistant behavior manifests itself through student teacher relationships. I observed a variety of behavior from blatant disrespect to indifference. These relationships seemed to depend largely upon the day, the activity and/or the moods of students and/or teachers. One teacher spoke extensively about the issue of respect. In response to a question about how this experience at Branton Institute compares to previous experiences she laughs and states:
   The biggest difference is the respect. I wasn't prepared for that at all. I
   think I was prepared for everything else, but not the lack of respect, for
   the children, for the teachers.

I probed her for examples of disrespect and she responded:
   I guess when you just say please sit down and you get this whole lecture on
   your tone of voice and quit looking at me and who do you think you are

Lisa Delpit's (1995) discussion on power and pedagogy in the education of children from cultures different from one's own can be used to interpret this response. She writes about the difference in perspective on authority and contends that
   Many people of color expect authority to be earned by personal efforts and
   exhibited by personal characteristics. In other words, the authoritative
   person gets to be the teacher because she is authoritative. Some members of
   middle class cultures, by contrast, expect one to achieve authority by the
   acquisition of an authoritative role. That is, the teacher is the authority
   because she is the teacher.

Based on this and other discussions with this teacher, her beliefs are more in line with those of the middle class cultures of which Delpit speaks while conversations with the students at Branton Institute suggest that their beliefs fall along the lines of the people of color in Delpit's discussion.

Although this conflict was critical, I found the most pervasive rationale for resistance to be rooted in intellectual indignation as caused by concern for academic and social preparedness.

Academic and Social Preparedness as a Rationale for Resistance

Many students talked about the second chance they were being given through their participation in the Branton Institute program. One student comments:
   Well, I think I'm lucky, I'm probably lucky to have this opportunity
   because I know I really screwed up last year, I really screwed up last
   year. And I'm just happy that I could come back here and make up for it.
   Cause its easy to make up for it because they are doing the same things as
   last year except I know it all now.

However, even though the students as a whole appreciated the purpose of the school, there was another strong theme that dealt with this level of the work. The overall tone was that they were not being challenged. Many feared that they would not be prepared to reenter the high school at the appropriate grade level. At this point, one might ask if this is really a second chance. Ogbu's (1978) discussion of institutional deficiency can be used to interpret the students' fears. He wrote of lower class blacks' concern that schools were not preparing their children with the specific skills needed for economic success. Unlike the students in Kaplan's(1999) study who felt that they were learning more in their alternative program than they would have in the regular program, the students at Branton were concerned that they weren't learning anything new. Several of Kaplan's students acknowledged that their grades in the alternative program were lower than they had been in the regular program because the standards were higher. The Branton students expressed the corollary sentiment; that there high grades were not an indication that they were learning more. They admit that they are in the program because they didn't perform and many received "failing" grades. However, they still learned enough of the material for it to seem like "baby work" when exposed to it again at Branton.

This fear of being unprepared or under prepared is not simply in the minds of the students. Except for mathematics, where two levels are offered, the rest of the curriculum is the same for all students. As was written in the introduction, a large proportion of the students spent their freshman year at Branton Institute, while another large group was spending its sophomore year there. The curriculum at Branton Institute was essentially a ninth grade curriculum. The students generally believed that the ninth graders would be fine, but the tenth graders would be in serious academic trouble. Alternative programs have been criticized for this kind of mediocrity (Gold and Mann, 1982). Many of the students in the focus group expressed a desire to stay at BI for the remainder of their high school years. One students sums it up by saying: "what's the use of going to the high school ? We won't know anything."

In many ways, social preparedness is closely related to academic performance. The academic performance of many of the Branton students has been hindered by social/behavioral problems. Many of the students acknowledge that social immaturity has been their downfall. If BI does not deal effectively with these social concerns, the academic successes students experienced in their controlled environment are at risk of being neutralized when the students return to a mainstream high school setting where there is temptation for "backsliding" into the immaturity that led them to an alternative setting in the first place.

In terms of social preparedness, the feedback is mixed. In my interviews with the adults in the building, I inquired about what was being done to prepare students for their social transition to Baldwin High. I asked if there was an explicit attempt to prepare the students for the social differences between Branton Institute and Baldwin High. The answer was that nothing was being done. The closest preparation that most of the adults felt that the students were receiving was their trips to the high school for physical education classes, which did not include all students. Students at Branton Institute were given the opportunity to participate in assemblies and extra curricular activities at BH. The response to this option was usually mixed with many students expressing feelings of embarrassment or shame in socializing with BH students while they were enrolled at Branton Institute. There was a similar response regarding the boarding of the busses in the morning.

There was also some concern on the part of the adults involved with the school regarding the readiness of students to enter the high school. Readiness was discussed in terms of two categories; social and academic. One teacher is hopeful about improvement of social skills. The teacher states that "some of them are actually making it, you know, I can see some progress in some of their academic work and also their social skills." He spoke specifically about a young man who took a strong leadership for a fund-raiser. The teacher commented: "that gave him some responsibility and I felt very good that he could do that." This same teacher, however, had a serious concern for the overall academic preparedness of the students, especially with regard to the state administered proficiency exams. The teacher implies that even though students may experience success at Branton Institute, that success may be misleading based on the level and nature of work completed. "So well you say, hey, you got an A here, but when it comes time for the real thing (proficiency exams), if you don't know it, how are you going to do it?" So, one teacher verbalized concern with the level of academics. Having, spoken with the teacher regularly, intellectual indignation could be an accurate description this individual's attitude.


In a very real way, it seems that the source of student resistance was about much more than students simply rejecting the value of education. Their resistance was often reduced to this by many of the adults involved. It turns out that their resistance was far more complex and seemingly quite logical.

Initially, many students resented being pulled out of the "regular" environment. They felt ostracized on many levels. Over time, many students would come to resent the structure, labeling it "babyish", and feel deceived. This program was to use a unique approach; an alternative education. This is the way it was advertised. According to the description of several staff members, the structure of the program was very traditional. This is in keeping with my own observations. In fact, successful alternative approaches like "Science in the Sunshine", were off limits to the students who may have benefited from this unique project.

Further, the content was seen as insulting by many of the students. In fact, the work was not always challenging. Generally, the curriculum was at a ninth grade level. This would be the second time learning this material for many of the students. Certainly this is understandable. From an educator's perspective, it makes some sense that if students do not successfully complete a grade that they did not learn the material from that grade. From my discussions with students I learned that sometimes failure means that homework was not completed or non-academic activities took precedence over academic ones. Michael Apple (1990) writes about viewing conflict more constructively. I will assert that the leading cause of conflict at Branton Institute is misperception based on lack of effective communication between adults and children. Much, but certainly not all, of this conflict revolved around academics. The students enter the school knowing that they are capable but also know that for a variety of reasons they have not demonstrated this capability. The teachers enter the school with general information about the students' performance, but are not always privy to the reasons for the poor performance. This gap is fertile ground for misinterpretation and misperception on the part of both parties.

Although it probably happens in some cases, the narrated experiences about resistance and Branton Institute do not reveal resistance for the sake of resistance. Students were able to articulate their rationale for resistance to me in a way that was quite logical. Their logic reflected their truth. Teachers' responses reflected the teachers' truth. The source of the conflict was the gulf between self-other or in this case, teacher-student. The organizational structure of the school is constantly being refined. The school is managed reflectively. This is due, in large part to the strong, on-site leadership (Stringfield and Herman, 1997). When procedures, policies or ideas in general don't work, there is reflection and revision. Each time I visited, the atmosphere was slightly different because of some change, however slight, that had been instituted. Many of these changes were motivated by students' feedback. This willingness to consider students' input in the change process should have been a lesson for students. It could have potentially demonstrated the positive outcomes of respectful resistance and a testament to the power of human agency. At these times, the staff "worked the hyphen", between teachers-students well (Fine, 1994). These were times when communication was most effective, pedagogy was most innovative, democratic empowerment was fostered, and students learned.

I don't believe that there is a way to eliminate resistance. In fact, I don't believe that it should be eliminated. Resistance keeps professionals on their toes. It can be exhausting, physically and mentally. In the final analysis, however, I believe that a healthy level of resistance can act to make the school the best it can be. This is especially likely when the professionals involved are reflective and willing to make changes. In my estimation, that is the case at Branton Institute.


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DIA N. R. SEKAYI Associate Professor Education Howard University Washington, D.C. 20059
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Author:Sekayi, Dia N.R.
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Date:Dec 22, 2001
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