TOPICS > Education

Alternative Schools

June 27, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Alternative public schools for disruptive students. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW, Chicago reports.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Sitting quietly in class, 16- year-old Amy Allen doesn’t look like a troubled teen-ager, but last year Allen was expelled from her Chicago high school after stealing the school watchman’s car. She wound up in this alternative school in Chicago, which she now says is the best thing that could have happened to her.

AMY ALLEN: If it wasn’t here, I really think I would have went a lot farther downhill than uphill — ’cause when you come here, it’s like the teachers, they motivate you, and they give you, like, better things to think of. And they give you more goals to look at. And they make sure you don’t do anything bad, you know? They’re like, “you are going to finish high school, go on to college.” And you know, that gives you, like, self-esteem. You’re like, “hey, I can do it. If she thinks so, then I have to think so.”

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Crawford First high school is one of 12 alternative schools in the Chicago system. Though alternative education once meant a whole range of options to public education, in Illinois it now means public schools for disruptive students who are about to be expelled or Chicago School Board President Gery Chico says it is essential to provide options other than expulsion.

GERY CHICO, Chicago Board of Education: The faculties of our schools have asked for there to be a mechanism to rid the classroom of perpetually troubled students so that they have a fair chance of teaching and the children who are not causing trouble have a fair chance of learning. And finally, the students themselves that have been… that have caused problems for some time need to get out of that setting in many cases and get the more individualized attention that can be provided in these alternative schools.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Alternative schools began appearing in greater numbers across the country after Congress passed the zero tolerance for weapons legislation in 1994. Illinois was among several states that responded to the growing number of expulsions as a result of the zero tolerance legislation by funding programs for alternative schools. When Amy Allen first heard she would have to go to an alternative school, she thought it would be like a reform school.

AMY ALLEN: For like really bad people. I thought it’s like that’s the end of the line like. You go to alternative school, next you’re going to juvi or something like that.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Her classmate Tervarious Hampton got expelled from his high school for truancy, fighting, and drugs. At first, he was afraid to come to Crawford.

TREVARIOUS HAMPTON: I was thinking, “my head busted open, ’cause it was, like, “man, alternative school.” I’m thinking, I’m going to be there with a bunch of too old kids supposed to been graduated that’s gonna have attitude problems and just like to start a lot of trouble. So I’m thinking I was going to have to fight every day.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And there are some things about Crawford that do seem like a reform school. Security is very tight. Students are swept with hand- held metal detectors every morning. Bags are carefully inspected. And the school day is very tightly structured. Jerome Damasco was a practicing child and adolescent therapist before he took the job as principal.

JEROME DAMASCO, Principal, Crawford First High School: When students do first come to this school, you notice that they are quite guarded. They try to present themselves in a more negative way, maybe to will show that no one can mess with them, for example. But eventually, as they get used to the expectations of the school and the way the daily routines are, students slowly pull that guard down and benefit from the program.

TEACHER: (working with child) How much money will he have paid at the end of the year?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But security issues are not handled the same way at all alternative schools. For example, the community school in suburban Harvey, one of 119 state sites, is guided by a different philosophy, says community high school principal Sylvia Walter.

SYLVIA WALTER, Principal, Community High School: We don’t take a lot of stringent security measures. We do have a locked door, an outside door — but through the model that we use where we teach them to respect the rights of one another, to be comfortable, to feel secure and to trust, we try to teach them that it comes from within.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Walter says the school involves all students and staff in creating a community that is both physically and psychologically safe. 18-year-old Amanda Mirelez reflects the schools efforts.

AMANDA MIRELEZ: At our school, the community is a community. And if there’s one thing wrong with one person, the community always involves everybody and, you know, says, “well, what do you think? Should we do… How can we help this person?”

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Where would you be if this school didn’t exist?

AMANDA MIRELEZ: I probably would have still stayed dropped out and never would have come back.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Like most alternative schools, teacher-pupil ratios at Community are very low — five staff members including a social worker and vocational counselor for 36 kids. A basic high school curriculum of English, math, social studies, and science is offered. And all academic instruction is done through the computer. Community says the computerized instruction allows each student to work on an individualized program. It works for Jamal Rowell.

JAMAL ROWELL: You work at your own level, you know. They put the work in front of you, and the computer, it does everything for you, so it’s like you’re working at your own pace.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How is it different than sitting in a classroom, say, in math? How is it different than learning it on the computer or learning in a classroom?

JAMAL ROWELL: Well, I mean, you have to listen to the teacher for 50 minutes. And I mean, just listening to that teacher, you might miss a lot, whereas you’re looking at the computer in front of you, and I mean, it’s just words you can read. I mean, it’s comfortable… It’s a little more comfortable than being in a classroom for 50 minutes with students — you know.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What do you think would have happened to you without this school?

JAMAL ROWELL: Well, most likely, I probably wouldn’t have graduated this year if I wouldn’t have had the help of this program.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In addition to academics, each student must also spend at least three hours a day developing vocational skills, either job shadowing or in a paying job. Damasco, at Crawford First, also says individualized attention is the key to success. The standard high school curriculum is taught here, though not through computers. But that one-on-one attention is expensive. It costs $10,000 per student to educate a Crawford student, just over $5,550 at a regular Chicago high school.

JEROME DAMASCO: What we try to do at Crawford is that every period there is communication between teacher and each student going over the expectations of that class.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Students could be out on the street if they don’t live up to a rigorous set of goals and objectives created for eh student. The message worked well for Hampton, who rarely went to school and was flunking all subjects before Crawford.

TREVARIOUS HAMPTON: I can get along with the teachers in here. My old school, I used to curse at the teachers, I used to throw chairs, stuff like that. I used to act up ’cause I really didn’t know what they was talking about. Then when I’d try to be good, they’d kick me out of class and stuff, so I personally really didn’t really care about school. But here, teachers, they take time, make sure you know the work.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Amy Allen’s biggest concern now is that she’ll be sent back to her old school.

AMY ALLEN: I’d be afraid that I wouldn’t get the attention I got here. I’m so used to if I have a problem, you know, I can ask the teacher and they will help me. I don’t want to go back. That’s how a lot of people are here.

GERY CHICO: The alternative schools are not an end in themselves. We are not looking to that. We are looking at them as transitional assistance to return the student back to the general population.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Of the 4,600 kids in state- funded alternative schools only 40% received academic credit for their work. 12% dropped out or were kicked out. And 26% returned to their home schools when their alternative school time was up.

SYLVIA WALTER: I think we’re on the cutting edge of what’s taking place in education today. What I think we want to do is see it broaden. We’re servicing kids, kids are being successful and, the only way we’d change it is to offer this service to more kids.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Alternative schools reach only a small number of students in Illinois. 130,000 students were suspended or expelled last year. Just under 5,000 students were in the state-sponsored alternative schools program. Illinois state school superintendent, Glenn McGee, says he will support legislation that would require local school boards to at least consider alternative schools as an option for kids who otherwise would be expelled.

GLENN McGEE, State Superintendent of Education: Frankly, I think that it should be mandatory that before any student is expelled, local school board at least considers and looks at the different range of alternative programs and services available. Again, it’s not the answer for every student. And some children, frankly, will not make it there. And some children, young men, young women do need to be expelled. But I think that local boards would serve the students well and serve their communities well by considering these programs and services and doing what they could to support them.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And with the rate of expulsions climbing rapidly, many educators say the need for alternative education will increase, as well.