Alternative high school: or an alternative approach to high school.


analysis by Mike Kroll


Schools and 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.

Graduation 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.

Interestingly, 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 reading exam.

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.

The reasons 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.

For some 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.

The 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.”

School 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.

The 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.

The 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.

For Estes 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.

Because 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.

Estes sees 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.”

Another 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.”

Estes and 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.

Additionally, 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.

Alternatively, 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.

Perhaps 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.

Who knows 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.