Monday, March 24, 2008

More on Alternative Schools

The final session that I attended was a symposium of researchers from CA that investigated alternative schools (previous post), which Milbrey McLaughlin said were essentially "invisible."

Alternative schools in CA started around 1917 when the Smith-Hughes Act established federal funding for continuation high schools which, at that time, were designed to provide vocational training to people with other jobs. They eventually morphed into places for "over-aged, under-credited" students to go in a last ditch attempt to avoid dropping out. Today, the 520 continuation high schools in CA vary widely in every way; from pedagogy to the students they enroll.

Among the largest challenges these schools face (other than that most people are unaware of them) are that about half of students enroll for less than 90 days, that they often serve as dumping grounds for both unwanted students and teachers, and that they are often last in line for funding. Indeed, one superintendent told the researchers that it was acceptable for 10% of the students to fail and end up at the local alternative school b/c nobody would notice.

It is my perception that alternative schools are usually started to remove "problem" kids from classrooms in order to better facilitate learning for the rest and/or to "fix" these problem kids. According to the panel, the most successful schools were ones who tried to fix the school environment to suit the kids instead of fixing the kids so that they could fit in a typical school environment.

McLaughlin said that the system was basically "Balkanized" -- there was little communication with other county services, everybody seemed to envision different missions for the schools, etc. What they did find, however, was that the most successful schools were led by "supermen/women" who treated their job as a calling and worked tirelessly to make their school the best place possible.

The work of some of those individuals impresses me, but I do wonder if that is really replicable or scalable -- in other words, if there are enough people willing to sacrifice their lives to these schools in order to run all alternative schools in the country. It's the same question confronting KIPP and other successful schools. Many of them are built on the backs of supermen/women who work tirelessly for their schools and essentially sacrifice years of their life to make their school successful. I am in awe of what these people do, but is it really a solution for the nation? Can we find enough qualified people to treat schools as missionary work to make all schools uber-successful?

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