Every school is different and we all have challenges. I realize the truism of these statements. I teach at an alternative program. We serve high-risk students who have numerous behavioral infractions or have violated zero tolerance policies. We get “problem” students. This would include those students who use/sale drugs or alcohol, who have taken any weapon onto school property, or who have engaged in cyber bullying. You name it and I’ve seen it in my short time since becoming a teacher (2010).
The majority of our students are involved with the juvenile justice system. The majority come from high poverty areas and many do not reside with their biological mother or father. We ended last year with 53 students and start next year with 29. 45% of our students last year were black, 38% white, and 17% Hispanic. 83% of our students next year come from the major urban area of our county. We can serve up to about 70 students in grades 4-12. We cover all the required core subjects and a couple of electives via classroom instruction. Classes can also be completed via web-based courses.
When a student is suspended from their regular school for a final time, they proceed through a disciplinary process after which some are placed in our program. Most students are sent to us for 180 school days (one school year) and come to us throughout the year. First time offenders have the opportunity to leave our school 68 days after arrival. Students are placed on a level program. It begins with level one and goes to level four. Repeat students start on reentry level, below level one. As students move up in level, they earn more privileges to include departing school earlier, talking during lunch, wearing street clothes, and getting more breaks.
Students must adhere to a strict dress code at school. No jewelry, make-up, or fingernail polish may be worn. No cell phones are permitted in the building. Upon entry into the building, students go through a metal detector and a pat-down by a police officer. There is no talking once they enter the building. The day starts with an assembly. The principal talks about behavior, upcoming events, and students are given the chance to “say the rules” which moves them from level two up to level three. We are moving from a block schedule to a period schedule. However, not all our schools operate on a period schedule, so we must maintain two schedules within the building and this increases the challenges to the teachers. Lunch is transported to us from a high school across town in styrofoam containers and students eat with the teachers in individual classrooms based upon what level they are. Students are permitted to use the restroom and get water during a morning break, lunch, and an afternoon break.
Average class size is about 7-12. Small classes present its own challenges. Group work is difficult. Additionally, it is not uncommon for all or half of your class to be absent on one day and the other half be absent the next day. What you thought would take one day, now takes two or three days. Homework is hard to get completed. Most of our students are not intrinsically motivated and require extrinsic motivation.
But the job does not come without its joys and rewards. I love making the personal connection to students that other schools and teachers have written off as incorrigible and intransigent. Learning how they learn and making those connections with them is what keeps me coming back and feeling good on most days. If you want to know more – ask!
*This is not meant to be a academic overview on the purposes or effects of alternative education.
**We are a program because we do not have a school cafeteria (as I have been told).