School Districts and Alternatives

In a new article on the Education Next website, “Out of the Mainstream,” Lynne Blumberg wonders what ever happened to the alternative high schools that thrived in the 1970s, which were very different from the alternative schools she encounters today. What she found was in part a story about changing times and changing students, but also a story about unchanging school districts.

Lynne, a teacher and writer, decided to see what had become of Alternative East High School, in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, which was launched in 1971. Alternative East was modeled after Philadelphia’s Parkway Program, which Time magazine called, in 1970, “the most interesting high school in the U.S. today.”

Blumberg writes:

At Alternative East, students could create their own courses. As long as the course met college entry requirements, students could develop it, find a faculty member to teach it, and then advertise the class on a poster. If 15 students expressed interest, they could register for the course during master schedul­ing days held twice during the year. Students seldom sat in classrooms all day. Instead of looking at slides, for example, an art class piled into a van to visit local galleries.

Alternative East flourished for a little over a decade, but the nontraditional school ultimately lost the support of the local school board, which felt that district schools had “highly skilled, highly paid people, and we should be able to provide for the needs of these [students].”

Even the Parkway Program is no more, also the victim of a school district’s desire to do things its own way.

Blumberg explains:

In 1990, the district asked Ms. Odette Harris to become Parkway’s principal. For more than 30 years, Harris had been the principal of William Penn, a large, traditional urban high school. Her style and Parkway’s had little in common, and she remained principal long enough to alter most things alternative. As Ms. Catherine Blunt, Parkway’s union representative at the time, put it, the school changed “because we were in the district.”

In a blog entry at The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Dale Mezzacappa recently compared the idea behind Parkway to that of Philadelphia’s School of the Future, which Dale wrote about in the Spring 2010 issue of EdNext (“High School 2.0“).

The idea, much like Parkway in the 1970’s, was to reshape the urban high school experience for the typical student – and do it within the system, not outside of it. In its own way, again like Parkway, it aspired to be a “school without walls,” by taking full advantage of our virtual world and promoting a concept of education that was not contained by the school walls but engaged fully with its surrounding community through real-world projects.

In its first three years the School of the Future encountered wavering support for its mission from the school district, Mezzacappa noted in High School 2.0.

She concludes her blog entry:

I tried to engage Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to talk about SOF and the implications of its experiences for promoting real school reform. Disappointingly, she never found the time.

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