Alternative High Schools
It is not the students who are failing school, but rather the schools who are failing its students. As a community we wonder why is it that some students succeed, while others fail miserably in the education system. And the answer is quite simple; frankly there is too much prejudice and biases. This attitude is mainly aimed at the students who are considered “bad” students, students who are receiving F’s, and mostly students attending alternative schools. In Lives on the Boundary, Mike Rose tells us he was placed into the vocational track at Our Lady of Mercy. The vocational track was for students who had done poorly on the placement tests. Rose writes, “When teaching the vocational group, Brother Clint probably slowed down a bit or omitted a little of the fundamental biochemistry…“ (29). Teachers and authority figures in the education system tend to automatically assume that these particular students are hopeless and give up on them almost immediately. These students are pushed to the back of classrooms, carted off to alternative schools, and for the most part, forgotten about. Most teachers would rather focus on the “good” students because these types of students are much easier to deal with.
I was a straight A student, had a 4.0 average, and the epitome of the perfect student. I signed up for all the AP (Advanced Placement) courses and was in classes with students who were a grade ahead. It‘s not like school was my favorite place to be or anything, but I always listened in class, took notes, and completed all homework and projects on time. Teachers loved having me in their class. If no other student had assignments to turn in, teachers knew that they could always count on me to have something completed. It was like clockwork. In the hallways, teachers would stop to ask how I was and how my day was going, trivial things really, but it showed their favoritism. I was the good student.
It really is surprising sometimes how everything can change in just the blink of an eye. Sophomore year at high school started out just like any other school year, except I started falling behind in class and failing. Suddenly, I wasn’t the favorite student anymore, but instead the troublesome one. Teachers were concerned at first, but then gave their attention to students who were doing well. As the months wore on, half of the teachers did nothing, just handed me back papers with big F’s on them, while the other half thought detention would make me start studying again. Well, there was certainly no imagination there on the school’s part to get me interested in school again.
As I fell further and further behind, the counselor suggested that I enroll for the local alternative school--“A school where students could get caught up on their credits,” so she said. So I enrolled, and I was no longer the high school’s problem, but the alternative school’s problem. How neat and tidy. The same subjects were taught: math, English, history, and so on. However, it was more of a building that housed us during school hours than anything else really. As Rose put it, “The vocational track, however, is most often a place for those who are just not making it, a dumping ground for the disaffected.” (26). Whether it’s an alternative school or the vocational track, the education system created it so that the unsuccessful students were weeded out and cast aside.
I remember that during my first month at the school, 4 students came and went, and then 4 more left and never came back. We were lucky, the 3 teachers that taught at the school actually believed in us and wanted us to succeed, but for some it wasn’t enough. Here was a group of students who weren’t considered worthy enough to attend the regular high school and had to sit in this cramp little mobile building that was supposed to be your classroom. Every time someone walked across the room, you could feel the “building” shaking. During winter with the wind howling, it seemed as if the roof would just come crashing down. The heater was turned off overnight because of “budget problems,” so we’d come to school in the morning and sit in a freezing classroom.
Rose wrote, “If you’re a working-class kid in the vocational track, the options you’ll have to deal with this will be constrained in certain ways: You’re defined by your school as “slow”; you’re placed in a curriculum that isn’t designed to liberate you but to occupy you, or, if you’re lucky train you, though the training is for work the society does not esteem; other students are picking up the cues from your school and your curriculum and interacting with you in particular ways.” (28).
The curriculum at the alternative school certainly did nothing for me; I could have done the work in my sleep. In fact I could, and did, finish a course in less than a month and received full credit Yes, I was occupied during the six hour school day but I wasn’t learning anything that I didn’t already know. As I mentioned, we were very fortunate to have hard working teachers who tried to teach us what they could, but the main problem was school funding. We barely had working computers and at the end of the year we didn’t even have ink for our printers, while the high school was debating over a new scoreboard. Nearly all of our computers came from grants that were awarded to the alternative school due to our teachers’ grant applications. Yet, people question why these alternative students are failing. The three teachers at the alternative high school were the only school authority figures in the education system that actually cared whether we succeeded or not. They put countless numbers of hours and energy into us, the students. Without their hard work and dedication, the majority of us would not have made it.
“Druggies.” “Pregnant.” “Alcoholics.” Biased and untrue statements that were another factor in causing most students to drop out of alternative high. When other students hear that you’re attending an alternative high school, every single one automatically assumes that you fall into one of these three categories. It’s almost robotic like, “Oh, did you go to rehab before going back to school?” Or “How old is your baby?”
One day I was at the supermarket and ran into an old acquaintance from the regular high school. We went through the whole pleasantries and he mentioned that he hadn’t seen me around school lately. I said that I was attending the alternative school and the first words out of his mouth were, “Oh, I bet there are a lot of druggies and addicts there. That school is like for dumb people.” But it wasn’t. Most of the students would rather attend alternative high schools because they believed that there is too much drama at the regular high school, where there was a larger number of students. Others liked the ratio of teacher to students. Since there were fewer students at alternative schools, teachers were able to work with students more effectively and students received more feedback. There was a lot more one-on-one between students and teachers at the alternative high school. However, most people in the education system and community don’t notice this. They only focus on the negative elements and don’t bother to open their mind to what’s being achieved.
The funny thing is, the students are learning this biased and prejudiced behavior from their own teachers and people in the community, including their own parents. Back when I was attending the regular high school, I used to hear teachers talking to each other in hushed tones about this student or that student who had transferred out to the alternative school, or that the police had stopped by the other day for a drug problem. Their hushed tones and secretive nature made the issue seem bigger than it really was to the student body. Now, I’m not prone to eavesdropping or anything, but one day I overheard my teachers from the alternative high school talking about how uncomfortable they had been at the school district meeting. Other teachers barely acknowledged them and when they did, the conversation was very short and curt, sending the message that these teachers of “druggies and addicts” weren’t as worthy of the title of “teacher.” Not only were the students of alternative high schools ostracized, but so were their teachers.
There was this invisible line dividing the students of regular high schools and alternative high schools apart, as well as the teachers. Rose writes, “College Prep at Mercy was certainly an improvement over the vocational program-at least it carried some status.” (30). The educational system and teachers put too much emphasize on how high up in the chain a student is. Hard-working students, athletes, cheerleaders, born leaders, are all rewarded regularly. Stopping to chat with a student in the hall, pictures in the school newspaper, even pictures on a teacher’s own whiteboard. But what about the students who are struggling? Shouldn’t these students be the ones receiving the most attention? Struggling students don’t carry any status and don’t receive any extra attention, other than detention or a counselor suggesting you transfer to an alternative school.
Rose talks about his experience at school, “Fortunately, the priest who taught both chemistry and second-year algebra was also the school’s athletic director. Membership on the track team covered me; I knew I wouldn’t get lower than a C.” (30). Teachers and coaches all have their favorite students and athletes, and they love to show that favoritism. Athletes were always able to receive passing grades even though very little effort was made in the class. Teachers could care less about a troublesome student, even though he may have written a rap song and produced a CD on his own or she may have created her own fashion portfolio. There’s no status unless you’re at the top of the class academically or at least an athlete. At the alternative school, our teachers encouraged us to follow our passions and allowed us to incorporate it into our everyday lessons. We were able to earn credit for doing the things we love.
So, why are so many students, whether they attend alternative high schools or the kid who sits in the back, failing in school? Because the schools are failing at their job; their job to provide motivation, to provide support. Most educators stop with the inspiration and enthusiasm once a student has declined so far. And if the teachers and educational system don’t give a rat’s ass about your education, why should you? They don’t show that they believe you can make it, so why should you believe it in yourself? It’s true that if you don’t put any effort forward, why should your teacher do the same? But a teacher should be motivational and at least try to interest their students. Teaching should be more than a paycheck every month; teaching should excite teachers to inspire all their students. Most alternative school teachers realize how their students are struggling and are there to motivate them to do better. It’s not an easy job which is probably why other teachers would rather focus on students who are already doing well.
The education system should encompass all students. No student should be passed over for another, or considered too much of a failure already. We all learn in different ways, and some may need more attention than others. If a teacher would just give the kid sitting in the back row an extra minute of attention, it may impact that student’s life and encourage them to try harder. If communities could just try to let go of their prejudice and biases, students would have a brighter future.
Rose, Mike. “I Just Wanna Be Average.” Lives on the Boundary. New York: Penguin, 1989. 18-37