By Dr. Adam Jordan and Dr. Todd Hawley
Earlier this week, our nation faced yet another school shooting. This one left a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year old boy wounded, the girl critically. That shooting in Lexington Park, Maryland, came barely a month after 17 died in Parkland, Florida, where we watched the story unfold of a broken young man — with mental-health issues, a troubled personal history, and a semi-automatic weapon. Brave parents stood alongside their shaken but determined young students as they expressed their pain, their frustrations, and their proposed solutions. The appropriate conversations on guns and mental health, which we have had so many times, began again.
Clearly, these conversations need to continue. And while we have deep respect for the lives shattered by shootings and will continue to support the conversations on gun violence, today, we hope to start yet another appropriate conversation.
We want to talk about the power of public alternative schools.
In the days following the Parkland, Florida, tragedy, we learned a lot about the shooter, whose name we purposefully omit both to disempower his action and to show respect to his family. The young man struggled in the traditional school setting, often presenting problematic behaviors and antisocial tendencies. We know his teachers worked hard to support him, including by referring him to alternative school settings.
Most public school districts in the United States have some form of alternative program for students who face considerable academic or behavioral challenges and some have schools designed to target specific populations of students with disabilities.
Mary Anne Raywid, the late alternative-education pioneer, once described an alternative school as “an empty glass to be filled with any sort of liquid — or even used for something other than a glass.” Her point was simple: For some students, we need to expand beyond the walls of the traditional setting and offer a different approach. While alternative schools may vary from place to place, all these schools usually have smaller student-teacher ratios, which gives teachers the opportunity to build rich and meaningful student-teacher relationships and to assess and monitor the needs of students. Schools that focus on supporting students with exceptional needs often offer more intense services to support behavioral and mental health. These schools and the professionals who fill them are a vital part of a healthy school ecology, and they are too often overlooked.
While an alternative setting seems like an obvious place for a student like the young man in Parkland, bureaucracy bogged down the process of getting him into a school tailored to his specific needs and that offered psychiatric counseling.
"It’s very hard to get a kid in there, very hard,” one of the young man’s former teachers told the Washington Post. “I don’t know why, but I suspect it comes down to money. . . . So for three-fourths of the year, he went untreated at school.”
Untreated. At school. Think about that for a moment.
Eventually, he would spend time in a school designed to meet the needs of students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Still, he worked to get out of the setting, due to the stigma attached to kids who attend alternative schools. The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel found a report filed on the young man while he was in a school designed to meet his mental health and psychiatric needs in 2015. The report said, “He often perseverates on the idea that his current school is for students that are ‘not smart.’”
We must change the stigma associated with alternative and need focused school settings.
For those who have not worked in an alternative environment, we understand how the negative perception is created, but we also understand the importance of shifting the paradigm regarding public alternative schools. To do this, we planned to highlight the research into the value of investing in alternative schools and the dedicated professionals that serve their communities in those settings.
But then, we thought of the power of students’ own words. Perhaps the lone bright side of the Parkland shooting is that our nation learned the power of student voices. So, with that, we thought, “Why not give our students a space to speak? Their words are surely more poignant than ours.”
Adam was once an alternative school teacher for students facing academic or behavioral difficulties in the traditional setting. He put out a call on social media to his students at that school, now adults in their mid-20s, asking them to tell their stories of alternative schooling. We offer their words in the hope these brilliant young people will be part of starting a new conversation on alternative education.
My name is Daniel. I am writing this to express the importance of alternative education and alternative schools. I was fortunate to attend an alternative high school my sophomore, junior, and senior years. In alternative high school, I received a greater education. I believe if it wasn't for the years I spent in alternative education, I wouldn't have become the successful adult I am today. I arrived a trouble teen not caring about my education. It was there I was shown how to better myself and help others do the same, along with realizing the importance of a great education. It's the teachers that make this difference. I believe if there were more alternative education for misunderstood students, our nation's dropout rate would dramatically decrease. And unemployment would be a thing of the past. This is why more alternative education is a MUST in our education system.
I was once a troubled youth, thinking the world owed me everything. I felt alone.
I remember my first day at alternative high school; I was nervous due to rumors I had heard. It was this small building which used to be the old middle school. It was a small, very quiet setting. I was greeted by the principal at the time, Mr. Haithcox. He showed me around a few classrooms. One in particular was Mr. Jordan’s. I walked in and it was a very relaxed setting. The kids were interacting with each other and the teacher listened to their feedback. This was nothing like the larger setting I disliked, where the teacher never really spoke to me outside of class. I could tell this school was going to be different. I had a few run-ins with the law, nothing serious really, but the teachers never judged me or made it seem like I was never good enough. They always pushed us to go farther and made us feel like we were the future. And they gave us the support we needed. This was nothing I had ever had in a school setting or home.
They understood us, and even if they didn’t know it, they changed my life. I dropped out for one semester and the amount of effort the teachers and principal put into talking me into coming back is what made me realize they care about the students and their future. After I came back, I put more effort into learning, socializing, and becoming a better youth. They helped me get back on track after coming back, whether it was a teacher staying late to help me study or just going over tomorrow’s test. They always made me feel like we were family, instead of just another student to teach.
You could tell these teachers loved each and every kid as their own. If it wasn’t for alternative schooling, I know I wouldn’t be where I am today. The way they taught me and encouraged me to push myself is what I’ll always love. I just wish more people could’ve had the chance I had to change my thinking and mindset. That would’ve never happened if it wasn’t for the great teachers such as Mr. Jordan, Mrs. Helmer, and the principals who had the patience, knowledge, and skill to help. These teachers had more faith in me when I didn’t have faith in myself, and for them to not throw the book down and send me to in-school or out-of-school suspension every time they couldn’t handle me was amazing to see. They would pull me to the side and just talk to me like I was equal. This is what made my experience better than I ever expected and I will always remember them due to the impact they had on my life.
Alternative school is powerful. That's where I met all the wonderful teachers who welcomed me with open arms every day and made me feel comfortable. I wasn't so good at regular school. Alternative school has really changed my life. I walked in as a confused teen who didn't know which way to go because regular school was so stressful. I felt like giving up until one day I got accepted into an alternative school that offered one-on-one sessions in everything I was struggling at.
The teachers there were very understandable, loving, and, most importantly, there to listen to their students and help them in any way they could. My alternative school, to me, was more like family than just teachers and students. Everybody called it the bad school for bad kids, but that is not true. Yes, of course, troubled students went there but not all students were trouble.
Alternative education helped me to get my diploma, which I thought I would never get. I thought I would never get to walk across that stage. I failed eighth grade and never got to walk across any stage. I felt like I failed at life. I was ready to give up until I went to an alternative school where it got me to the grade I needed to be with the help of wonderful teachers. I spent my whole high school years there and loved every minute of it. We got to do and see things regular school students couldn't see or do. Little things like showing love and showing you care for your students will go a long way in a student’s life. We need more schools like that or more teachers who will sit and listen to a student, show them you care, show them appreciation, I promise it will change someone's life. That's what an alternative school did for me.
Alternative school helped me by letting me learn at my own speed. It helped me feel better about myself — me being able to be me. I was able to make friends a lot easier because I was around people that had some of the same issues I had. And the best part about it was the teachers! Y'all made learning sound easier and way more enjoyable. Y'all went out of your way to make sure we understood what you were talking about. And you were more than just teachers! Y'all became friends with each student.
When I started alternative school, I didn't think it would be a good fit. I actually thought about dropping out and just getting my GED. But once I got used to the setting and teachers, I made honor roll all year long. I never thought I would graduate high school until I went to alternative school.
All my life I was nothing but trouble — kindergarten all the way through middle school and most of high school. I’ve had teachers to tell me I would be dead before I even reached 15. I even got into a fistfight with my seventh-grade math teacher. I was smoking weed since the 6th grade. Every teacher already had me labeled as a bad kid. I felt mistreated in school. I was raised by my grandparents, and it wasn’t until my grandmother got really close to her death that I started to straighten up.
My senior year of high school, I was transferred to an alternative high school. It was a really small school, but there was something special about this place. It felt more like a home than a school. The teachers actually treated you like somebody. It felt like a family. I mean, we all really cared about each other outside of school. I remember Mr. Jordan more than any other teacher there. Mr. Chesney and Mr. Mac were great teachers and showed just as much love, but Mr. Jordan played a tremendous role in the man I’ve become today. I remember him asking me every day how my night had been, and I could always be completely honest with him and pour my heart out on the table and not feel as though he was going to be mad at me or judge me. Sometimes, he was disappointed, because he could see so much more in me than I saw in myself. I once watched him crawl up under my old, beat-up Nissan just to tap the starter so I could get home even though he was wearing an $80 shirt. I kept yelling at him to get up because I ain’t paying for that shirt! I would have never graduated without him. Heck, probably would have ended up in prison or worse. But when I went there, they gave me a whole different look on life. And till this day, I am forever grateful to my alternative school family.
Family. That’s the power of transformative alternative education. While we are proud that our students express their appreciation for a good education, we don’t offer their words here in an attempt to gain accolades for ourselves. This is the work all teachers do, but we need to recognize that public alternative schools are an important part of the ecology of a healthy public school model. Part of the effort to make sure that Parkland is the last mass shooting is to make sure that powerful alternative schools are funded, appreciated, and have such a good reputation. Students feel proud to go there.
Alternative schools save lives. Just ask Daniel, Markel, Jessie, Keona, Chris, and Demetrius.
We hope all y’all with experience as teachers or students in alternative schools will tell us your stories by using this form. Highlight excellent teachers, and share your thoughts on how we can continue to support and improve alternative schools.