An inside look at an alternative high school in Utah

Principal W. Ivan Cendese's letter began: ''Dear Ms. Parsons, I am writing to you to make you aware of an alternative high school located in Sandy, Utah, that serves as an option for Jordan School District students.''

Dr. Cendese also sent along a copy of a monograph - a copy of his doctoral dissertation, describing his experimental high school. The monograph is entitled:''A Naturalistic Study of an Alternative High School'' and is both frank and thoughtful.

In 1974, Dr. Cendese was the assistant principal of Hillcrest High School in Utah's Jordan School District, in charge of attendance and discipline problems. For the cause of alternative schools, that seems to have been a fortunate appointment.

As this thoughtful administrator went about his task, interviewing students about their absences from school and certain academic classes, as well as from club and athletic activities, he began to ponder what sort of environment might meet the needs of those whom the present traditional high school was either forcing or allowing to drop out.

He noted one curious phenomenon. Students who had graduated from Hillcrest High, even though they might not have full-time jobs, didn't hang around the school parking lot or drift around in the halls of the school. Yet, those who voluntarily dropped out, as well as those expelled for discipline reasons, could regularly be found ''in the environs.''

To assistant principal Cendese, this translated into something called the ''rites of passage.'' The students with degrees, he reasoned, had ''made it,'' but those without the degree had not, and it was this sense of failure to complete what seemed a necessary step to adulthood that brought the students back time and time again.

This motivated Ivan Cendese to ask for permission to establish an ''alternative'' school - one in which the ''unusual'' student might be accommodated.

At first, he established an alternative school within the regular high school - something many high schools in the late '60s and early '70s tried. As he put it:

''The hope was that by spending part of the school day in an accepting and relaxed atmosphere, students would then be motivated to attend other classes and would be easily integrated into the mainstream of the school.''

As so many other high school administrators can document, this did not work. For these students, traditional classes - and even school clubs and social activities - were ''wrong.'' And placing them part of the day where they were warmly and thoughtfully treated, rather than making them eager to go back into regular classes, served only to alienate them even more.

And so this brought the school district to a more radical approach - to a different building, with different hours, with different standards, with different programs. From a handful of students, Valley High School, as the alternative is named, now serves some 600 high-schoolers.

There are night classes.

There are learning packets devised by qualified teachers which students can drop in at school and pick up. They spend whatever time is required in school in order to learn how to accomplish what the packet outlines, then drop back in to be credited before starting the next packet.

There is accommodation for students with small children. There are therapy classes. There is a special cadre of teachers who elect to work with students who, even though they are five or six years behind in basic skills, still want that rite of passage - an earned high school diploma.

And there is a learning center that works on study skills, on basic skills, on building up lost self-esteem.

Of the staff at Valley High, Dr. Cendese has written: ''The teachers are actively involved in the effort to engage the students in learning. They call students when they are absent and encourage students to make up absences and assignments.

''Teachers make themselves available to supervise this makeup work and actively direct this activity.''

Then to emphasize this special relationship, he asserts, ''Teachers become personally responsible for each student and in this way create a nurturing environment.'' Then he admits:

''While this may seem too much like coddling students, it is more an attempt to provide a caring atmosphere.''

But all is not sweetness and light at this alternative school. One enormous problem is in gaining acceptance from the traditional educators for the work that the students actually do accomplish.

Dr. Cendese states the dilemma:

''(Because) we accept any level of achievement as a sign of progress, we are not able to establish an environment that encourages students to work harder and achieve more. . . .''

And what of the traditional educators? They consider the alternative to be ''too permissive.'' And, in fact, they accuse the Valley High staff of ''encouraging and perpetuating the very behaviors'' the staff is actually trying to help students overcome.

The situation, though, is not totally negative. Dr. Cendese explains that ''there is a grudging acceptance on the part of district officials that Valley High is a necessary component of the system.''

Yet the question is posed: ''Must Valley High School evolve into another traditional school in order to be accepted by the community?'' The students who attend this alternative want, understandably, to be proud of their school; they even desire, so they tell their evaluators, a sense of community.

To Dr. Cendese, the problem is the school's; that is, he states that ''school structures must continually adapt to the needs of students regardless of how difficult this task is.''

And he concludes, ''In order for Valley High School to function as a viable option to traditional schools, it must maintain its basic philosophy that school failure has as much to do with school learning environments as it has to do with the lack of motivation of students.''

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