How grads rate their alternative education

AS a student at the Arthur Morgan School (AMS), Jessica Brommer could work at her own pace, pursue subjects that interested her, and challenge her teachers without fear of rejection. So her recent move from the tiny alternative junior high, tucked away in the Black Mountains of North Carolina, to a relatively impersonal public high school in Burnsville, N.C., was ``an incredible shock. ... I'm still recovering from it.'' Although she says she's made the adjustment, the 10th-grader so misses the creative outlets and individual support she found at AMS, she has decided to finish her high school studies at home on her own next year and apprentice with a local artist before going to art school.

In random interviews, other graduates of alternative education programs, like Jessica, say the experience was almost always positive in terms of personal growth. The students gained self-respect and respect for others.

Their thoughts on the quality of the education vary, however.

Katherine Yerkes, one of the first graduates of Somerset School in Washington, D.C., and an enthusiastic alumna, says that before she came to Somerset, she ``had some problems concentrating.'' But an ``excellent'' English teacher and the school's emphasis on writing skills, discussions, and essay tests prepared her well for college-style examinations, she says.

Ms. Yerkes says the difficulties in moving on to a conventional college were mainly bureaucratic. There was, for example, the awkward hassle of asking her teachers to convert her written evaluations into letter grades for her transcript. And because Somerset, like most alternative schools, steers clear of standardized testing, her class needed a cram course to learn how to take the multiple-choice SATs. (Such courses are common at conventional schools as well.)

At Somerset, Yerkes says, ``I began feeling more confident, and learning took on a new meaning.'' She recalls a boy in the eighth grade who refused to do anything but play basketball. Instead of forcing academics on him, the teacher scheduled him for long mornings in the gym. She explains, ``After three weeks of basketball, he said maybe he'd like to try something else, and I think he signed up for a history class.''

With the exception of those who are naturally shy, students seem to develop a strong sense of self-assurance in the familial atmosphere of alternative schools, which helps them later on, says Mark Steese, a graduate of The Free School in Albany, N.Y., who now works for the state of New York.

``I had been pretty withdrawn in grade school, but at The Free School I started to open up,'' he says. ``That was the best experience of my life up to that point.''

Sam McPheeters, who shuttled between public schools, alternative schools, and even a military school, says he developed the confidence to stand up to peer pressure at The Free School. Now a senior at Doane Stuart in Albany, Mr. McPheeters still does not drink or smoke, and will be attending college next year. ``The school had a lot to do with why I've stayed straight.''

While the loose structure enables students to study what interests them, some find the schools lacking in specific academic areas. David Bryant, one of Katherine Yerkes's classmates, explains that, while his math class undertook fascinating projects, ``We had no core curriculum established ... so we skipped over algebra, calculus, and trigonometry.''

Some students find the loose structure disconcerting. McPheeters describes his old school, the now-defunct Shaker Mountain School in Burlington, Vt., as having had ``sort of a far-fetched educational process ... like they'd say you could learn math by going bowling and keeping score.''

``You wouldn't come out illiterate, but in a situation like that it takes a lot of concentration to really learn something,'' McPheeters explains. ``The attitude was, `Hey, do whatever you want.'''

College admissions officers say, nevertheless, that alternative school students usually adapt well to college life. Princeton University admissions dean Tony Cummings says that if they have taken full advantage of a school's offerings, alternative school grads can be as well prepared for the academics as anyone else.

``They are powerhouses,'' says Olga Euben, director of admissions at Bennington College in Vermont. ``Alternative school students are used to taking responsibility for themselves academically. They understand what freedom is and the responsibilities that come with freedom.''

There are some, however, who never quite learn to roll with the punches in their later schooling and work. Peter Bekch, the director of the California Academy, an alternative school where classes are taught in the Socratic method, says ``one student went to Reed College in Portland, Ore., and after one year moved back because there was too much stress to perform and make grades.''

Silver Thomas, one of Jessica's Brommer's classmates at AMS and now a sophomore at Oakwood, a private boarding school in New York, finds there is little room for unconventional ideas in her new school. But, she says, she is learning to adapt. ``I think I've adjusted to it really nicely.''

What are all these children doing now, parents may ask. They are authors, artists, delivery boys, insurance salesmen, musicians, and teachers. ``You never know what someone from an alternative school will be doing,'' says McPheeters. ``But you can be sure they are doing something they are really interested in.''

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