Thursday, March 13, 2008

Alternative Schools

While I was teaching the Bronx discipline was, by far, the biggest problem in our school. So I'm sympathetic to policies that take bold action in an attempt to alleviate discipline problems in schools.

One policy option that's intrigued me is alternative schools -- essentially taking all the kids that severely disrupt learning out of a group of schools and sending them to another school. The idea makes great sense for the initial set of schools: they should have fewer of the worst offenders; fewer ring leaders and bad role models for other kids; and fewer discipline problems (in theory, of course).

The problem is what to do with all the "bad" kids you send to the alternative school. Taking all the worst kids from a city or region and putting them all together is potentially a recipe for disaster.

So I was beyond intrigued when Pittsburgh decided to start an alternative school for students with discipline problems this fall. They contracted out the management of the school to a firm here in Nashville, Community Education Partners, that runs a number of these schools around the country.

I heard a very positive report earlier in the year, but yesterday I was forwarded this article from a local Pittsburgh paper describing chaos and violence in the school. One parent calls the school a "fighting ground," and another a "war zone." Then I woke up today to see a headline in the local paper that read "Nashville Firm Defends Alternative School." Thinking it was about the school in Pittsburgh, I clicked on the link only to see that it's actually about troubles with a school the firm is running in Atlanta. Apparently eight students and the ACLU are suing the company and Atlanta school district for running a "warehouse for poor children of color."

Now, one newspaper article and a lawsuit prove little about the success or failure of the schools run by this company -- one would assume (or at least hope) that the company has some sort of track record of success considering they have received contracts to run 15 schools in 5 states. But it certainly underscores the notion that running a school full of the "worst" kids poses some problems.

I'm not sure if this proves that private companies don't automatically manage schools better or that private companies are subject to more scrutiny when they run schools, but it's an issue I plan to revisit in the future.

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