I began my teaching career several years ago at the Juvenile Detention School in Newport News, VA. Needless to say, the setting was definitely under the educational umbrella of the city’s alternative programs. Yes, all students under the age of 18 in my state are required to attend school. Why would the incarcerated youth be exempt from the state’s compulsory education law? I taught four years at Detention, and it was the most rewarding experience. Where as I truly sympathized with learning blocks in the traditional classroom setting and offered different ways to present material, the expectation from my students was to at least try. A number of former students are now attending college, working full time, or both. My kids contribute their successes to “someone who really cared about them.”
The challenge before me is to defend the need for alternative education services. I plan to answer the question by illustrating the following three points. First, a clear definition of alternative education needs to be shared with the reading public. There are several misconceptions concerning the role and student clientele of non-traditional schools. Secondly, the expectations for both students and staff are also aligned with the traditional school setting. An alternative education setting is not easier. It remains just as academically challenging, if not more. A bonus for alternative education services is to personally know the student beyond grades and behavioral concerns. Finally, the need for alternative services extends to social and economic concerns, as communities see a higher crime rate and a sharp increase in society’s number of functionally illiterate citizens.
As early as the 1970’s, true alternative schools have operated in the United States as a welcomed solution to traditional learning environments. A working definition of an alternative school is “an educational establishment with a curriculum and methods that are nontraditional.” This is not to be confused with the modern idea of the school choice movement, such as government vouchers, magnet schools, and home schooling. The concept has been around for over a half-century. Alternative education receives a bad reputation among the public, with the distorted preconceived notions of a place for detaining incorrigible students and teachers merely babysitting with little hope for instruction. It is described by an outsider of the field as a setting for the academically and behaviorally challenged, such as 16-year-old seventh graders and the most severe emotionally disturbed students. It is not necessarily so, and shame on school boards across the country who use the term and not provide the services school-aged children so desperately need, regardless of the circumstances.
Despite the biases, instructors within the alternative education field are state certified and required to participate in the same professional development activities like the traditional instructors. The schools are held accountable for annual yearly progress (AYP), and students are standards tested. While there are a number of students who assigned to the department for outside circumstances, a number of self-referrals from students have increased over the years. The chief reason from both parents and children alike is the lack of individualized attention in a traditional school setting. To be fair to my fellow colleagues, it is difficult to establish personal relationships with each student and incorporate several different lesson plans within a classroom of 30. Alternative schools have the ability to establish close relationships with students, because the class sizes are smaller in comparison. The key is individuality within education, not another student number and statistic. This is one shining example to the continual need for alternative programs in the public school setting.
When schools fail to provide the need for school-aged children, the result is disastrous. There is a direct correlation between academic disenchantment and crime. Without alternative education, cities begin to see an increased crime rate during school and work hours (typically 7 to 5) among teenagers. Recidivism rates (recidivism defined as the probability of returning to a form of incarceration or court adjudication) among the young are high. The most shocking statistic concerns third graders and the court system. This is courtesy of the Los Angeles Times, the California Department of Education, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and Every Person a Reader by Stephen D. Krashen. “Evidence shows that children who do not read by third grade often fail to catch up and are more likely to drop out of school, take drugs, or go to prison. So many non-readers wind up in jail that Arizona officials have found they can use the rate of illiteracy to help calculate future prison needs.” For further statistics, visit the link http://www.wonderofreading.org/statistics.htm. As citizens, we should be outraged! In order to break the cycle of poverty and continually build a contributing society, education is the key. Funding alternative education services is a wise investment in the future.
In closing, the answers to “alternative to what” in educational circles all have the one key word in common: education. The methods in which we adults learned years ago-lecture, chalkboards, and in seat exercises-are now but extinct thanks to technology. The needs of school-aged children, however, remain the same. They want to be academically engaged. Some behaviors are a direct result of lack of engagement on their appropriate level. Even the soft-skill work components for the 21st century have changed. Our students today are preparing for positions that have yet to be created. Education beyond reading, writing, and math, is crucial in today’s society. Alternative schools and programs are important partners to the community at large. These smaller institutions, too, need all the social support from the public and the financial support of school funding decision makers; the students deserve it.