The Appeal of Alternative Education

If your child has been assigned to an alternative school for this year, the student probably needs it. So, celebrate, because your child’s chances of getting a high school diploma are much better in an alternative setting than back in the big school. In fact, the alternative education your child is receiving might soon be the path to a diploma for a lot more students. A combination of technology, finances, and societal change is transforming alternative education from something only the “bad kids” received to something that more students want. The term alternative education may be replaced by something much happier, like personalized learning or a diploma-on-demand, but the design will be the same.

I wish there had been an alternative school opportunity for me in the 1960s. Neither the suburban St. Louis high school I attended or the small Alabama community my family moved to in the middle of my senior year had anything like an alternative route to graduation. It wasn’t that I was a troublemaker. I was a good student, attended every day, did my homework, studied for tests, and had a nice set of friends. Even so, high school seemed a gigantic waste and a hothouse of miscreant behavior. It sucked time away from a creative kid who was never bored and love to explore. Brett Dennen said it simply in his 2013 song, When We Were Young, “It’s hard to be different. It’s even harder when you wanna fit in. High school was a catastrophe. It was a failure factory.”

High school was so dismal that it became my mother’s ambition for me to graduate. She bawled on a stormy night in late May of 1970, while lard buckets caught drips from a horribly leaky gym roof as the seniors sang the alma mater – Out Upon the Hills of Marshall followed by the tear jerker, You’ll Never Walk Alone knowing her red-headed, tender-hearted, dreamy-headed, always-ready-to-drop-out son was among was among the 148 wearing caps and gowns.

She was stunned when four years later I graduated from George Peabody College for Teachers and questioned the credibility of higher education when a masters from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota followed. All four diplomas hang in my office. Without a doubt the toughest to earn was the first one, and that’s a shame.

So why does a guy who seemingly did ok in the academic world think there should be more alternative routes through high school? That’s simple: to give a voice to the millions who in the rear view mirror were marginalized and to advocate for the millions ahead who will benefit by an opening of paths that hold academic integrity and which meet the realities of today. The monolithic high school structure cemented in our society and experienced by some 20 million students a year is changing. Alternative education is a blueprint for its future. The benefits are richer lives for young Americans, a better platform for personal, family, and societal growth, and cost savings for school districts and the public purse.

I should know. After that masters degree from the Southside of Chicago, I went back to Nashville and spent ten years building an alternative high school. Private schools have traditionally been for the academically gifted or the religious and/or gender separatists. I figured there were plenty of families with kids who needed something that wasn’t a typical private school but was far smaller and more personal than a public school, a school that could be customized to the needs of each student. I was right. Forty-three years and 3,000 students later, the school rolls on helping an annual enrollment of 80—one student at a time.

Still fighting for the kids who need a different route through high school, I’m on the board of a private company that helps school districts run alternative schools. It’s a privilege and complex business responsibility to work with public schools to increase graduation rates and offer kids at-risk of not finishing high school a legitimate shot to get a diploma. There are few moments as personally and professionally rewarding as seeing a student who no one expected to graduate walk across the platform and receive a diploma. I know the joy it brings to a mother’s heart.

Nearly everyone who reads this article finished high school and looks back on that time with a mixture of fondness, disbelief, and a twinge of embarrassment. Most people will not read this article, and a higher percentage of them look back on high school with pain, disbelief, and a pang of irritation. Those millions who look back with pain probably would have benefited from an alternative path.

Alternative education creates a path for students to finish high school outside of the 8 to 3 Monday to Friday conventional structure. Traditionally, if there is any tradition, alternative education has been for the slackers, the troublemakers, the truant, the pregnant, and the students a school district needs to graduate but would just as soon keep out of sight. Alternative schools are not the showcase for a school district. There’s not a trophy case or a spring musical. But they should be the showcase and in place of a trophy case and theater events, there are life stories that are enriched by an alternative route to a diploma. A report from the Government Accountability Office released in July 2019 found fewer than 1 percent of all public school students attended alternative schools in school year 2015-16, roughly 369,000 students, though that may be a significant undercount.

The approach has a certain beauty. How many of your friends work from home? How often do you work from home? How often do you shop from home? How often do you order a meal, organize a meeting, or get directions from a phone? Keep up with groups on Facebook? Use Wikipedia? Connect via LinkedIn? Why do you do these things? Because they are technologically possible, they save time, and they provide connectivity and information. They are instrumental in moving your life, your job, your business, and your family forward. Yet in this world of fingertip access to almost anything, we ask high school students to sit within a building for seven and a half hours for 180 days and call it a year of school. How antiquated. How ridiculous.

Thank goodness that alternative education came along. It recognized that high school does not have to be tied to a place and a time—just like real life. It recognized that learning was the most important thing, not time warming a tablet-armed desk. It recognized that all learning is self-taught. Maybe a Monday, Wednesday, Friday morning schedule gets the job done or maybe it’s Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, or maybe it’s Saturdays. Alternative school recognizes that the needs of the student might require accommodations because there’s a baby involved, or a job, or parents to care for, or an addiction to fight. Alternative education says, “You do you and we’ll find a way to get you the schooling you need to move ahead in life.”

And it’s not just the kids who got pregnant or strung out that made alternative education a reality. The founders of this nation were pretty much home schooled, privately tutored, self-taught, and alternatively educated. But you don’t have to roll the clock back 250 years to see the beauty of alternative education. Think today. Think movie sets and TV shows. Think Schools at Work, a company that takes education to kids who are actors. Think schools that support elite athletes. Think schools inside of academies focused on hockey, tennis, and skiing. These kids don’t catch the bus for Ricky Nelson High School five days a week. They go to school around their job, or their passion – around their life as they have chosen to live it.

Most kids who go to alternative schools today didn’t choose their life, too often it tumbled upon them. But if it’s good enough for teen stars and top-flight athletes, it’ll do for Mary who never thought she’d get pregnant or Alfonse whose mom is incapable of taking care of herself. In fact, alternative education shouldn’t just be for those with difficult life circumstances or those with gobs of athletic or performing talent, it should be available to anyone.

The real reason that alternative education is coming out of the shadows and into the limelight is money. It costs less to provide shorter days, less frontal-learning class time, and more check-in opportunities than it does to operate warehouses of students. All learning is self-learning. Teachers are content experts, guides, and motivators in the best of situations, and they know that lighting the flame of curiosity is the best gift they give. With each passing day there is decreasing need to ride the bus, walk the halls, and warm the chairs in America’s high schools. Every day there is greater opportunity to check-in online, participate in virtual discussions, learn on a job, pull up a Khan Academy video, and be mentored by a teacher and a boss.

While alternative education does cost less, that’s not the only factor in play. Public education lacks the competitive forces that drive changes in the business world. In fact, maintaining the status quo is often the number one focus of many school boards and teachers’ associations. Keeping teachers employed and providing a place for kids to be while parents work is still a fixed reality in America.

Several years ago, I was invited to consult with a newly formed school district about what schools of the future might look like. I was happy to work with the school board about how they didn’t need to erect massive school buildings, how learning could take place anywhere, that the future of doing things differently was bright and glorious for this bran new district. But the freshly minted school board members relied only upon their own experiences. At their first official meeting they approved a mascot for the football team and began to create their grandfathers’ school district. They were good people charged with an awesome public responsibility; they were not education revolutionaries. The truism that everyone is an education expert because everyone  attended school characterized that school board’s perspective.

We are tied to our past, to the academic calendar, to sports programs, and homecoming queens. But society changes. It’s foolish to cling to the notions that public schooling is free, that a high school education equals 180 days times four years, and that sports must be organized within the education system. The sooner we see that a lot more high school education should be alternative education, the faster we grasp the future.

John M. McLaughlin is a strategic advisor and board member  at ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy, and Education.

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