Alternative programs click for some students

Not all high-school students feel they fit into the normal teacher-directed classroom. In order to help them learn, alternative education programs that use less traditional teaching methods have sprung up around the country. Trademarks of these programs include smaller and fewer classes, more student initiative in choosing what they study and when they attend, and a closer relationship between students and teacher. The Monitor has taken a look at some student-need-centered high-school programs, including alternatives.

North Central High School, Indianapolis

This large (3,500 students) high school has an alternative education program, Learning Unlimited, from which about 90 percent of enrollees go on to college. The program occupies a flexible indoor space: a large open area for group activities surrounded by ''pods'' - nooks where small groups of students cluster. About 350 North Central students have chosen the Learning Unlimited option.

Kelly Colby, now a senior at Sweetbriar College in Virginia, credits her three years in Learning Unlimited as having made high school manageable.

''I came to North Central from a rough junior high that was like shock city for me. I saw drugs, kids being frisked, ODs, and all those things,'' said Kelly.

''I'd heard North Central was a top high school, but it seemed so huge and cliquish,'' she says. ''Learning Unlimited students hung out together; we were a network for each other.''

''It's a program that seems to work best for kids at the top and bottom of the spectrum,'' says Jim Ellsberry, director of the program since 1976. ''If you do it right, you should work harder and have more fun than in the regular courses.''

''We had to apply to get in and reapply for every school year,'' Kelly reminisces. ''We definitely had smaller classes. In the alternative program, an English class might have just five or at the most 15 students. I had to take regular chemistry, because it wasn't offered in the alternative setup, and we had 70 kids in one class.

''Also, we had 'family groups' of a few students and a teacher who did things together, like go to a play or go out to eat,'' said Kelly.

The ratio of teachers to students is competitive with the 1:22 ratio throughout North Central, says Mr. Ellsberry, ''because we have to be cost-effective. But since students are not required to attend classes every day , teachers can meet with smaller groups.''

Learning Unlimited students have a large say in what their preparation for jobs or college will include. Some choose to receive credit for on-site experience, others compile their own lengthy book lists with the help of English teachers. And some devise means to get credit for physical education without ever going to gym.

Instead of attending classes every day, Kelly opted for community involvement. ''For my government credit, I worked on Birch Bayh's campaign downtown. There were three of us stuffing envelopes and going to rallies. For English I went to a lot of plays and wrote reviews of them. For history I toured the historic houses in Indianapolis and made a big poster about them. Some kids had after-school jobs or internships that they could use to get credit.''

Community service is a powerful component of Learning Unlimited, says Ellsberry.''One group of students did flower gardening at the New Hope Foundation, a place for severely retarded adults. One girl met a man in a wheelchair who could bowl; after that she picked him up in her car every Sunday and took him bowling.

''Homes for the aged and children's hospital wards are other places where the kids serve,'' says Ellsberry. ''Some of them had to deal with death for the first time. We sat around trying to comfort each other after we learned a child they had played with on Friday wasn't there when our kids came again on Monday.''

''We've had some beautiful success stories with kids who were socially immature,'' says Ellsberry.

''We also take a few high-risk students, and not all make it. Alternative programs have a good retention rate with potential dropouts. But students who are incorrigible (a very small number, maybe 3 or 4 percent) cause chaos in regular classes or special programs because there's nothing you can do with them. When we expel them, we have to take them back, because school is compulsory. But now Indiana has a new law; we don't have to take them back after they're 16. School is not the right institution for helping those kids.''

Students from other schools agree. Dottie Hayward, a student at Provincetown (Mass.) High School, wouldn't coddle troublemakers. ''If kids don't want to be in school, let them find out what life is like. When they see you need a diploma to get anywhere, they'll come back.''

About 30 percent of the students who enter ninth grade don't stay long enough to graduate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.Washington, D.C., has the highest dropout rate in the nation: 54.6 percent. States of the Deep South, New York, and California come next.

Among 18- to 2l-year-olds, 1 out of 4 black youths, 1 of 3 Hispanic youths, and 1 of 7 white youths drop out.

Some drop out because they don't like school; some because of financial difficulties and home responsibilities; some because of marriage and/or pregnancy; some because of poor grades, expulsions, and suspensions; some because they have landed a job.

Most students in general high-school courses have little flexibility in their class schedules. Even so, more, not less, time spent directly on learning is one of the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. One of the commission's recommendations is for a longer school day or year.

Mike Lorie, a student at Peabody (Mass.) High School, is ''totally opposed'' to more school or more homework. ''I'm learning enough as is,'' he says emphatically. ''Those who go when they're supposed to don't need more time.''

In fact, the public high school students I talked to think their school day (usually 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and year (usually 180 days) are long enough. Most said they attend classes 25 to 26 hours a week and have homework that can be completed within a half hour, even though teachers could assign that much for each course. If they want to, they can get the homework done ''while the teachers are wasting class time,'' many said.

Even those education experts who advocate more ''time on task'' are quick to point out that more efficient use of available time could accomplish what a longer school day or year could.

As Kelly implied, school size can also affect the quality of education students receive. Big schools, such as Hyde Park Academy (2,900 students) in Chicago can overwhelm some students by sheer numbers. But they can more easily muster resources for schools-within-the-school than smaller ones like Provincetown High (160 students). South High, Newton, Mass.

This public high school in a suburb close to Boston seems to have found a solution to the problem of ''bigness.'' South High assigns every student to one of three ''houses'' with family-like loyalties so kids won't get lost in the shuffle. Louis Goldman, a senior at South, explains that all students have homerooms within their assigned houses. Each house has one-third of each class.

''If you have sisters or brothers, they'll all be in the same house,'' adds Lillian Menis, another senior at South. ''But extracurricular activities like sports, clubs, newspaper, radio station, and yearbook activities cut across house lines.''

Magnet schools are a type of alternative high school specializing in arts, international studies, science, technology, or business. They were started in some cities as a tool for desegregation. In addition, they focus education around fields toward which students have specific leanings.

Some education experts disagree with this approach to education. ''We believe too strongly, perhaps mistakenly, that we can attain our educational objectives solely by institutional strategies,'' writes William B. Durden in ''Lessons for Excellence in Education'' in the July 1983 issue of ''Daedalus,'' the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.Mr. Durden's alternative to changing the structure of schools is the recruiting of teachers ''who bring with them a personal agenda for excellence.'' Northside High School, Atlanta

Billy Densmore, director of Northside School of the Performing Arts, is one such person. Georgia's teacher of the year in 1981, he is a former church music director who alternately cajoles and harangues students toward excellence.

Bursting upon the stage with dazzling glitter, exuberant vitality, and swift-paced choreography, ''We the People'' is one of several musical revues performed by Northside students who have successfully auditioned for ''tour show ,'' one of six components of the Performing Arts program. ''Tour show'' participants give performances outside school.The principally black cast performs with a professional assurance achieved by long hours of disciplined practice.

Other courses of the school-within-a-school provide preprofessional training in musical theater, instrumental music, drama, dance, and technical aspects of the theater.

PA (performing arts) students spend half their school day training and half in regular academic classes with non-PA students. To remain in the performing arts program, PA students must maintain at least a C average each term in the academic subjects.

While Learning Unlimited and Northside School of the Performing Arts enjoy strong community support, in some cases the additional cost of alternative education programs can cause community ill will.

St. Louis and Chicago spend more on magnet than on general high schools. Sam Lofton, treasurer of the St. Louis Public Schools, said that in 1980-8l, the per-pupil expenditure for magnets was $1,200 higher than expenditures for general high schools. In Chicago the differential is about $380.

That's not the case everywhere. Hofstra University, which recently surveyed more than 1,200 high-school alternative programs, found nearly two-thirds spend no more per pupil than other schools in their districts. And Learning Unlimited gets its financial backing from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Foundation, rather than from Washington Township taxpayers.

But money is not the only issue. Also at stake is the fact that only a small percentage of students are reaping the benefits that alternative education programs can bring. About 8 percent, or 25,000 students, attend Chicago's magnet schools. Critics charge that this leaves 405,000 students - mostly minorities - in the bottom tier of a two-tier system.

Author/philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, designer of ''The Paideia Proposal,'' a radical reform which would offer the same curriculum for all students, says he is ''absolutely opposed to any kind of alternative education except for those who are too handicapped physically or mentally to participate in the regular courses.

''The best education should be for everybody, not just a few,'' Mr. Adler says.The ''unfairness'' charge aside, good alternative schools appear to offer three strengths for American high schools:

* They provide a learning option attractive to talented students who don't feel served by regular programs.

* They help keep potential dropouts in school.

* They provide a ''laboratory'' for innovations which may eventually spin off into regular high-school programs.

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