Alternative Education

I literally fell in to teaching when I applied for a position as a vocational instructor based on my credentials as a Journeyman Meat Cutter and my Associate Degree in Agricultural Production. In addition, I had served a combined total of five and one half years as a Correctional Officer, Residential Counselor for adjudicated adolescents and finally MR/DD adults and had worked at a well run addictions rehabilitation center as an Alcohol Counselor for twelve months. As a vocational instructor, I provided meat processing skills training to adult inmates at a well known Florida county jail.

With that assignment successfully completed, I certified for Biology and Agriculture and accepted a teaching position for Middle School General Science in Alternative Education for at risk and in lieu of expulsion students. Many of the students in my first class were on probation for a variety of criminal activities ranging from possession and sale of contraband to gang related violence. The remaining students were sent to the program after multiple incidents of anti-social or disruptive behavior in the classroom. One of those students, a farmer’s son, was sent because of possession of a pocket knife.

As it happened, I had two discrete sets of gang members in my class. In the first months, I had to deal with tagging of the walls with gang gelated grafitti, display of colors and other acts of territoriality that eventually culminated in physical confrontations and a few fights. Since we had a Sheriff’s deputy on site, we were able to restore order without too much difficulty. Interestingly, after open discussion with the obvious leaders of both groups and with the class in general, we were able to establish the concept of respect for the classroom in exchange for our respect for gang family tradition to the extent that the tagging and, most importantly, the fighting ceased.

At one point, based on a decision by the trans-disciplinary team, a group composed to teachers, counselors and psychiatrists, the female and male students were separated during core course work and intermixed during other courses and exercise periods. Almost immediately, the girl’s grades shot up. The boys’ grades increased somewhat. In both cases, the increases remained constant over time.

I was able to adjust my lesson plans to deal with the fluctuations in the student’s focus. Each time we had a incident, a confrontation or angry moment between students, I was able to utilize classroom time and science learning to assist them in clarifying what happened. One of the most significant issues turned out to be an ongoing discussion centered around the value of a formal education when compared to the revenue some of the students were already producing through street knowledge and illegal activity. I developed a composite study guide for the entire General Science curriculum. Attached to that study guide and ready for distribution at the appropriate times were examinations designed to evaluate student knowledge and to allow me to establish a framework for individual students. BY mid year, I was able to balance testing to student ability and ranged testing procedure from open book with assistance to unsupported testing. I found evidence of headway and gain with even the most challenged students.

I point out that there was nothing ambiguous about the students I had in this first of several classes of at risk students. They had all decided to follow a particular path and were open and above board about that decision. Hence, I was able to open and above board about my convictions. The end result of that openness was that I and the other teachers, in conjunction with the trans-disciplinary team occasionally made obvious progress with individual students and, at times, with groups of students.

At some point, I decided to advance my career and I accepted an offer to teach in the main stream. I was then introduced to NCLB and the related standards. I found myself confronted by a mixture of excellent students backed by demanding parents and grey area students displaying at times many behaviors reminiscent of my at risk class, some of whom were backed by equally demanding parents. I did not have the latitude in the main stream that I formerly had in dealing with disruptive behaviors. I did not have the flexibility in restructuring my lesson plans around the fluctuating student moods and focus. Most of all, I was unable to separate the males and females for core issues although I tried to find ways to slow down or redirect the overpowering mating rituals that frequently disrupted the teaching process.

I began to think then and have seen little evidence to the contrary that Alternative Education was a misleading mneumonic for a dumping ground for students out of compliance with the performance based structure embedded in the mainstream. I never found any where in the mainstream the opportunities for real impact of my students that I did in my Alternative Ed. experience. Although I heard constant reference to student directed delivery, I was never able to mold my lesson plans to the extent I did in Alternative Ed. As a result, I am sure that many opportunities for real learning slipped through the cracks.

I do not have a Masters in Education and, frankly, do not consider myself to be an expert teacher by any stretch of the imagination. I do consider myself to be a life time learner and am fully aware, through personal experience, that, in the final analysis, it is the student who determines their own ultimate success or failure and not the teacher. It was my job to inspire and encourage the students I had in class and their job the work hard. I was able to do that to my satisfaction in Alternative Ed. but felt restricted and disabled in the main stream.