As alternative schools reach for excellence, public schools take careful note
Cambridge, Mass. — IN the late 1960s, a revolution was under way to remove the structures traditionally imposed on students by their schools. A whole generation of ``alternative'' schools arose in which students and faculty democratically established the rules and determined the curriculum. Twenty years later, alternative schools are still very much alive.
Many are thriving, in fact, due largely to disenchantment with conventional public education. And public schools are taking note.
``People are looking at alternative schools and saying, `Why is this working, and what can we do to use these ideas in the regular system?''' says Jerry Mintz, the executive director for the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools.
One goad to the public schools has been the threat of a voucher system, which would enable students to use taxpayer funding to attend the school of their choice, public or private. Another has been the need for new approaches for children with emotional and behavioral problems.
Like most alternative schools, the Full Circle High School in Somerville, Mass., founded in 1972, was designed primarily as a haven for a disaffected middle class. Gradually it has turned its attention to so-called ``problem'' students. The alternative approach ``can have a very powerful effect on kids'' who, ``because of their history of substance and physical abuse, ... have not been in control of their lives,'' says director Paul Stein. ``They have a model of how they can be involved in a community in which they have some control, ownership, and safety.
But the main reason public schools are turning to the alternative model is academics. Diane Tabor is an assistant principal at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High, where she helped found the alternative Pilot School in 1969. She notes that, in the early days of the movement, people were committed to ``a civil rights effort at redressing wrongs.'' Now, she says, they care about excellence in education.
The emphasis on academics is a surprising turn, given the movement's roots in the '60s. The pioneers of alternative education tried to change the very nature of schools. Instead of declaring what youngsters should learn, the school would accommodate their sundry interests and skills. Rather than laying down the law, the faculty might propose rules to which students could respond during meetings of the school community. The students would even have a say in the hiring and firing of their teachers.
``It went back to the Jeffersonian notion of a small community in which people negotiated things face to face,'' says Donald Oliver of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. ``There was a participatory democracy representing a broad range of interests.''
This basic concept took a multitude of forms. Some schools - such as Sudbury Valley in Framingham, Mass. (see story below) - offered a completely unstructured environment in which students chose what they wanted to learn and at what pace. Others sent pupils into the surrounding city to get a hands-on education. Still others introduced the ``open classroom,'' which literally did away with the walls within schools so that students could move freely between classes, academic disciplines, and grade levels.
Some advocates of alternative schooling argue that today's version lacks the spirit of the original. ```Alternative' has come to mean just a `different kind of school,''' says Prof. Oliver. ``We have lost the chance to live a more equal, radical, and humane vision. It's a moment I don't think will come again.''
Oliver laments most the change in values. Where the alternative movement of the '60s was sparked by dissent from institutions and authority, he points out, students and parents today are looking for better ways to get ahead.
``We've learned that a much more structured program is necessary,'' says principal Bob Ferris of the New Orleans Free School in Louisiana. ``We feel a socially conscious responsibility that when these kids walk away, we want them to be able to compete. ... Initially, I think we went too far. Nothingness was not acceptable. But I think we've seen both sides of the spectrum and we've reached a healthy compromise.''
Some alternative schools, on the other hand, have stuck to their original charter. Indeed, the staff at the private Sudbury Valley school attributes the school's survival over two decades to ``being exactly what we've said we are.'' They suggest, though, that their public counterparts have had to compromise because of community pressures and school-board regulations on hiring and firing.
Yet, at the public Pilot School, the vital signs of alternative schooling seem to be holding strong in their original form. An enclave within the much larger Cambridge Rindge and Latin High, the school still has a floor and a world to itself. The faculty and students know each other by first names, and the dean's ever-open door is marked with a piece of construction paper bearing the name ``Ray.'' The school's ethnically and racially balanced enrollment has swelled to 220, with more than 200 applicants annually for a freshman class of 60. There are weekly community meetings, student-requested courses, and a school play that involves over half the students.
As for democratic participation, senior Megan Todd, who helped select the new guidance counselor, says that ``student opinions were heard and respected as much as those of any of the other committee members.''
The Pilot School has defied the stereotyped view that alternative schools condone lassitude and drift. ``If anything, you work harder,'' says senior Thomas Bonds. ``You have a relationship with your teachers on a personal basis, and you wouldn't want them to think less of you.'' More than 80 percent of the graduating class goes on to college.
Still, the school has not been immune to the realities of the 1980s. ``Peer, parental, and societal pressure to be competitive has come about significantly in the last five years,'' admits Dean Shurtleff. ``Now there is pressure to offer honors courses because colleges look for them on transcripts.''
While Shurtleff has upgraded existing courses in response, he has not instituted an honors program. ``We say, `make a choice. Maybe it's better to go somewhere else to fill your needs.'''
Mintz thinks that present national concerns actually favor the original concept of alternative schools. ``People talk about values education, but there's no better way to teach values than by involving kids in decisions about their lives on a daily basis,'' he says. ``You can't teach democracy undemocratically. You have to experience it to know how to use it.''