Alternative high school: or an alternative approach to high school.
analysis by Mike Kroll
communities across Illinois face many similar problems but they differ in
magnitude, willingness to expend resources and definition of success. Too many
of our high school students fail to graduate and many graduates leave with an
inadequate education. In both instances their prognosis as adult citizens is
heavily handicapped. Whether they have behavioral problems, lack motivation or
don't fit well into a standard high school environment the result is frequently
the same. When our children fail to graduate from high school or do so without
the expected level of skills and abilities the failure is shared by the young
person, the family and the community at large.
rates are hard to measure because the numbers are commonly manipulated or flat
out misrepresented. For example, in the recently released “2008 Report on
Illinois Poverty” graduation rates as reported to the Illinois State Board of
Education were used as a key metric and amazingly eight counties reported an
unbelievable 100 percent graduation rate while another 19 reported rates of 90
percent or better. Do we really believe that 18 percent of all Illinois
counties have graduation rates exceeding 90 percent? Many private prep schools
don't accomplish that feat despite selective admissions.
in two of the counties reporting 100 percent graduation less than half of their
eleventh grade students passed the Prairie State Achievement Exam reading test
while five of the 90+ percent graduation rate counties suffered the same fate.
Pulaski County's results were particularly impressive with a 100 percent
graduation rate despite a mere 30.5 percent of their tested juniors passing the
We do know
that between 20-30 percent of Galesburg High School students will fail to
graduate from GHS, and for a small but a significant number of their peers who
do graduate it will be a hollow accomplishment and just as much of a failure of
the school system. Considering the majority of other GHS graduates who achieve
or exceed the expected level of skills and education we may never know know how
much better they might have been prepared if some of their peers had had the
option to choose an alternative path to that high school degree.
many students fail to graduate are many and varied but include a surprisingly
large number of students who are expelled from school for behavioral reasons.
Current Illinois law mandates students remain in high school until age 17
making it more difficult for students to drop out of school at their own
initiative but that doesn't mean they are really functioning students despite
their forced presence or that they can't accomplish the same result by acting
out and getting expelled. High schools such as GHS have adopted ever more rigid
and inflexible rules leading to more and more expulsions. It is likely that
making students remain in school against their will actually increases
problematic behavior and a school environment that is even less conducive to
learning for their peers.
school officials and school board members the real motivation behind creation
of an alternative high school is to create an situation that permits the
removal of behaviorally problematic students from GHS without losing the state
aid calculated on the number of students enrolled. Students who are expelled
take their share of state school aid with them. Additionally there is ever
mounting embarrassment over the declining graduation rate and warehousing behaviorally disruptive
students in an alternative school can also be manipulated to provide graduation
of sorts that boost the district average. That is essentially what is done by
the many school districts that hire outside companies to provide alternative
high school services.
15-member committee that studied the feasibility of creating an alternative
high school in Galesburg appears to be taking the high road in this endeavor.
As they wrote in their second report to the school board, “...students are
impacted in alternative schools in a manner that changes their lives forever.
The moral imperative for school districts to do all that they can to nurture
the young people of a community might speak loudest for the need for a school
district to establish an alternative school for those students who need
additional support to fulfill their lives in a productive and positive manner.”
District 205's assistant superintendent for curriculum Joel Estes seems to be
the driving force behind this project but he has been joined by other district
administrators and teachers and even school board members whose motivations
seem sincere and genuinely concerned about the potentially lost students as
well as their classmates. The school district has tried to run an alternative
school before but those programs failed to win longterm support of either
district administrators or the school board despite some promising results with
small numbers of kids.
committee's last report included ten lessons they learned during their
feasibility study and while many of those lessons were obvious truisms (e.g.,
“good programs require good people”, “we are all in it together”, “someone must
be in charge”, and “curriculum and learning materials are important”) one of
them illustrates the biggest hurdle to successfully accomplishing their goal.
First and foremost is the issue of economies of scale. Just like the many small
rural school districts who are fighting for survival today it is clear that there
exists a lower limit to the number of students necessary to cost effectively
operate a modern high school. The smaller the number of students the fewer
teachers and staff you can affordably hire and the less cost you can cover for
materials, technology and facilities. Below a certain size it just isn't
practical to operate a modern high school and that minimum size seems somewhat
higher than 100 students.
committee's current proposed alternative school would be sized for
approximately100 students with four teachers, an administrator and a counselor.
“We will be looking to hire experienced and flexible teachers for this program
understanding that they need to cover a broad curriculum but a more flexible
and individualized approach to the standard curriculum should assist us here,”
explained Estes during an interview. “By design this will be a much more
individualized approach and each student will have an individual education
plan. We will also be highly dependent upon the appropriate use of available technology
and I expect very little of the traditional style of classroom teaching will
occur.” This number of students greatly exceeds the current number of high
school students attending the existing Knox County Academy and Estes
acknowledges that they would need to recruit more students from GHS as well as
elsewhere and that part of the cost of the alternative school might be offset
by the savings of having slightly smaller numbers at GHS.
and his committee the goal is to not only keep kids who would otherwise be lost
to the school system in school but to actually deliver a credible high school
learning experience to them at the same time. To his credit Estes does not want
to merely segregate troublesome kids and provide a relatively meaningless diploma.
He does want to keep them in school however. “If we do this the right way the
kids will want to come to school and will appreciate the value of actually
learning. Our goal has to be not only to provide a credible high school
education but to these kids to become lifelong learners once they leave the
program.” And he want to broaden the range of students considered appropriate
for the alternative school.
these students face many challenges in life beyond just the academic Estes says
it will be very important that a dedicated school counselor be integral to
their program and the program's administrator will also need to attend to how
each student's school experience is coordinated with their home and community
life. The program administrator will also be responsible for all of District
205's other alternative programs according to Estes. At this point the school
board has merely approved the hiring of such an administrator and the funding
of further study of establishing an alternative high school and not yet given
the go ahead to establish the school at this time despite reports to the
contrary in the Register-Mail.
a number of issues still to be resolved including finalizing plans to use Rose
Hoben Welch School to house the alternative school in concert with the existing
Phoenix Program. Some doubt that there is sufficient room for both programs in
the same small six classroom building and even whether or not the two programs
are truly compatible with one another. “One way that we can make more efficient
use of the available space is through more flexible scheduling,” noted Estes.
“We have already discussed having both an early and an afternoon session that
reflects the results of a number of studies that seem to show how many adolescents
learn better in the afternoon than early morning. It is also anticipated that
some of the alternative school students will continue to attend selected
classes at GHS and participate in GHS extracurricular activities.”
point raised by Estes is that “...for some students the alternative school may
be an intermediate step, a two-way education street if you will.” He sees the
potential for a student to transition over to the alternative school at some
point in his or her GHS career only to transition back to GHS later. “For this
reason and to instill a greater sense of academic rigor we want to have clearly
established mechanisms in place for the proper conversion of class credits in
and out of the alternative school. These students may receive a different high
school diploma than their GHS counterparts but it should not reflect an
inferior educational accomplishment.”
his committee are to be applauded for this approach to best meeting the needs
of Galesburg students rather than merely maximizing the available state aid.
However, even at 100 students the economies of scale still don't appear to be
there to insure a well-rounded quality high school education. Even if they hire
four exceptional teachers there seems to be no conceivable way to properly
cover the breadth of a modern high school curriculum, especially if these
teachers attentions must be divided between two daily sessions. Practicality
seems to require a larger alternative school with more space, students and
staff to be truly cost effective.
if the school district wants to avoid any stigma being attached to this
separate high school degree then the student make-up of this school needs to be
broadened as well. There are many students who are not significant behavioral problems
in GHS but who nonetheless do not fit well into the existing high school. If
any GHS student could opt into the alternative school to take advantage of the
greater flexibility I suspect many more would choose this route including some
very bright students who languish in the current system. This would put further
pressure on making the alternative school curriculum academically complete and
rigorous and greatly reduce or even eliminate much of the stigma of the
alternative high school diploma. Again, such a program would necessarily
require more staff and larger facilities and, of necessity, greater investment
by the school district.
rather than establishing a completely separate alternative school the school
district might want to consider reversing the trends of recent years and
injecting greater flexibility into the existing high school. GHS has become
much more rigid and less accommodating to those students who amount to round
pegs forced into square holes at GHS.
offering a more individualized education experience to any GHS student who
desires it along with some flexibility in scheduling to accommodate later
afternoon or evening classes. Create courses that cater more to the individual
needs of students and get further removed from the traditional classroom
lecture and exam model. Encourage greater innovation by teachers and support
more individualized or guided study within the existing high school framework.
how many of today's problem kids would cease to be problems if the system made
some attempt to accommodate them? The shocking fact may well be that the
challenge is less that of disinterested or disruptive students and more that of
a high school approach that demands traditional conformity and is intolerant of
students with different needs.