Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Alternative Schools

Since we recently moved back to North Carolina from Louisville, KY and made the decision to homeschool for this year, my heart towards educating all children has been broken several times. In the news recently, a new alternative school in Jefferson County (the school district where I taught for almost a semester in a low-performing public middle school, and volunteered with young adults who had been in the prison system and wanted a second change at education) has been in the news over the last few days.

Teachers locked in closets, cars stolen, violence including adults and students being lifted up and thrown in the air during altercations. 90% of teachers have already asked for a transfer at the end of the school year. 86% of teachers feel unsafe.

Then, I happened to read some comments, on the news article. People are talking about locking these kids up, and taking "the money" away from their parents, and about the fact that most of their parents are already in jail in the same sentence. The problems that these kids face are not easy problems, and obviously aren't being addressed by the current public education system.

It breaks my heart, because I possibly had some of these students when I taught 6th grade. I may know some of them. They were kids once. Sure, they had behavior problems then, but they were still little kids. I didn't leave because the kids "scared me off", I left because the administration (and specifically principal) failed at her job. I left because the system was broken. I left because I was under tremendous stress and pressure trying to save each and every one of those kids.

So, how do we save the kids when they are already this broken? What needs to happen to the school where the low class sizes and "alternative" name do nothing to solve the problems kids have faced since birth?

Here are a few tips that apply specifically to "alternative" public high schools.

  1. Provide counseling. When I volunteered at a GED program for young adults who had been convicted of crimes and offered a work-study alternative, the best thing that happened was a Friday round table meeting. It was completely open to whatever topic they wanted to discuss and they could talk about the crime and sadness and family strife and pain that they'd experienced since birth and try to work through some of those issues. Any public alternative high school needs to have counselors not just "available" but planned into the programming. Both one on one and group counseling.
  2. Provide workplace training. High school age kids in "alternative programs" already know how to survive. Instead of survival skills, we need to show them another way to survive. We need to help them see how they can learn the skills to find a good paying job that doesn't involve crime. We need to show them that there is a way out of their neighborhood and that there are other neighborhoods out there that aren't filled with violence and hate.
  3. Provide alternative scheduling options. Many of these kids skip school. Whether school starts too early and they sleep in, or they have jobs that keep them up late, or because they have other responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings or their own children. These kids don't just need supervision, they need to learn how to be responsible for themselves. Offer second shift classes, online opportunities, and work-study programs. People complain of the crime around this alternative school, but I can tell you that forcing them to stay "in school" 6 hours a day is doing nothing to solve the crime.
  4. Provide mentors and volunteers. Bring people in from the community. Bring in police officers, volunteers, reading instructors, Big Brothers, and whoever else will come. These kids need to know they have a community that supports them rather than a system that just wants them in jail the day they turn 18 so they'll finally be "off the streets".
  5. Provide food and home economics. Many of these kids may be suffering from physical and mental problems related to poor health. Make sure they are getting quality annual physicals and do what you can during the school day. Offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Show the kids how to cook healthy, quality meals for a low cost. Show them how to garden. Show them how to fix cars and perform basic home repairs.
  6. Provide housing, clothing, or supervision when necessary. You can complain all you want about how violent these kids are, but you may come to find that some of them are homeless. They may be reacting with rage because their parents kicked them out of the house. They may be living in a 2-bedroom apartment with their aunt and 4-5 cousins. They may have experienced a fire and lost all their belongings, so they stole some cool clothes or shoes. They may have no school supplies, because there is no safe place in their house to keep it. Work with community organizations to provide everything these kids need. If you follow Maslow's Hierarchy, you'll soon see why there are so many "problem kids" in low-income areas. They need more than just "teachers" to learn.
  7. Provide love. Again, we're back at Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I can tell you, that unless these teachers and administrators and volunteers have a true passion and love for these lost kids, the school will be unsuccessful. So let the teachers who want to leave go ahead and do so, and replace them with people who have a heart for these kids. Make it safe for the teachers, definitely, and tough love can still be love. Find those teachers, regardless of experience, who want to truly make a difference in the lives of these kids. 
It's not enough to say that these kids will never amount to anything, so let's just put them in jail. It's not enough to punish their parents, who probably aren't even in the picture. Are some of these fixes, expensive? Won't it be pricey to pay for all these counselors and extra teachers and support staff to make these alternative schools safe? Yes, but how much more expensive (morally and financially) to just give up on them and send them to jail for the rest of their lives because we failed to help them when they needed it. Cost to educate a child in Jefferson County approximately $13,000, cost to put them in jail for a year $20,000-$50,000. Let's invest our money wisely by investing in saving kids. Rather than being shocked that a broken system has continued to fail these kids, let's fix the system and save them.
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