The Stories We Tell About Alternative Schools
Jamie Alarcon, Ed.D
Alternative schools are often an effective resources for dropout prevention, but are often looked at by society as “where the bad kids go” or even worse can be stigmatized as less than in comparison to a traditional high school. These narratives are played out in entertainment where a student gets threatened by an authoritative principal to go to an alternative school, however that is not always the case. The true story of alternative schools often goes untold.
Keywords: Alternative Education, Misconceptions, Stigma
The Stories We Tell About Alternative Schools
While watching one of my favorite comedian's new sitcoms I was reminded of my work when the show based on a school setting where the teacher has a class of unruly kids is the savior of the school when he volunteers to teach “those kids. ” You know the ones, the ones that have a hard time comprehending the material, are failing some or most of their classes, and have poor attendance. The kids that fall through the cracks and are deemed at-risk of not graduating. For much of this, it is relatable as the teacher does his best, works hard, and spends a lot of time building relationships. However, there was the part where the assistant principal threatens one of the students with going to the alternative school. This is true. Every student that I have worked with over a decade has had this conversation. “Pass your classes or you will go to the alternative school” or “If you do not change your behavior you will go to the alternative school.” This is not new. However, when the student and teacher talked about the alternative school in the sitcom there was no conversation about what the school does, how it looks different, how it helps students. Instead, it perpetuated the stigma of alternative schools that are places where the bad kids go and even worse educators to go work.
I have worked with alternative educators from all over the United States. I have met and talked with passionate educators that work in alternative settings for all grade levels. In every first meeting of another alternative educator, there is this initial “finally, someone who gets me” moment and then we further discuss our work and the great things we are doing as we collaborate and get ideas from each other and meet a new friend to bounce ideas off of. The stigma of alternative schools in the US are defeating to those working in those schools, and toxic for students that attend those schools. I have had students that were afraid of my alternative school diploma thinking it would be thought of as “less than.” I have always thought how can that be? How can we be less than? At our school students are able to get one-on-one attention, individualized instruction, positive behavioral supports, build relationships with adults on campus due to the small school setting, and were able to help students pass classes they were not able to do at the comprehensive school using the same standards and assessment measures? How can we be less than?
Well, this is in part because of the stories we tell in alternative schools. Even with years and years of discussions of equity under our belt, different is still scary. We still vilify what we don’t know. It is easy to say that alternative schools water down the curriculum and that is why students pass their classes. It is easy to think of the other is bad and assume what you are doing is right. It is easy to blame student learning on the student, their parents, or their upbringing. What alternative schools do right is meet students where they are. Once you meet students where they are, provide hope, meaning creating pathways for students to achieve high school graduation using multiple pathways and agency thinking, and foster caring relationships, students can succeed (Snyder, 2000). Yes, even those students can succeed.
So as we move forward and tell stories of alternative education, let’s carve our a narrative about what is going right with alternative education. Let’s seek how they are benefiting students and look at ways to make this a more mainstream model. Let’s recognize that sometimes an alternative setting or a new beginning is good for some students. They get to start a new narrative of their journey without any past baggage. They get to work with teachers that are trained in motivating unmotivated students, reaching the unreachable students, and having high expectations for students that don’t have high expectations of themselves. Alternative education allows for this because the structures are different. Alternative schools can use time and structures differently than most comprehensive schools. Alternative schools are designed to be small to build relationships. They generally do not have robust sports programs and magnet programs, because their purpose is different. Their goal is to ensure students no longer fall through the cracks. So with this understanding, I hope that we can change the narrative of alternative schools from one of “where the bad kids go” to one of where students go to achieve their dreams.
Snyder, C. R. (Ed.). (2000). Handbook of hope: Theory, measures, and applications. Academic press.