The case for alternative schools

I came away from reading last week’s Inquirer series on school violence with three main thoughts.

  1. We currently don’t hold schools accountable for being unsafe. We hold them accountable for documenting that they are unsafe. As a result, schools have an incentive not to become safer, but to appear safer.
  2. The way we handle discipline is completely schizophrenic. We have a zero tolerance policy, which sometimes results in kids getting suspended or expelled for bringing aspirin or nail clippers to school. At the same time, we have sexual assaults that go unreported or ignored, or reported and treated lightly. Any teacher, principal, or parent can tell you that however you approach discipline, you have to be consistent about it. We seem to do the opposite of that in Philadelphia.
  3. We need a robust system of alternative schools in this district.

I wrote some about #1 previous posts, and I’m not sure how much more needs to be said about #2. But #3 is absolutely critical, and I fear we are currently headed in the opposite direction of where we need to be, both in terms of the number of spaces we have available and the quality of those options.

We have a handful of really good programs for out of school youth in this city – programs that treat kids respectfully, offer intensive case management, focus on their greatest academic needs, and help them prepare for college or work. But we don’t have nearly enough of them. We also have discipline schools whose primary purpose seems to be training for prison. And we all know how well those institutions help folks get back on track.

Having more and better alternative schools is critical for two reasons. First and foremost, we already have a ton of young people who have exited the system. Most will not re-enter a traditional high school. We can either wait for them to end up in jail or we can try to help them get back on track. By default, we mostly opt for the former.

Second, and this is where the conversation gets a bit uncomfortable, our comprehensive high schools need to be able to remove kids who have serious behavior problems. I know that sounds harsh. But it is amazing what an impact a small group of troubled students can have on a whole school. They aren’t getting the help they need in those environments, and they consume an enormous amount of the adults’ time and energy.

In the absence of good alternatives for these students, schools mostly shuffle them around and wait for them to drop out. That helps neither the schools nor the kids. And suggesting that our comprehensive high schools should be able to handle all of these students on their own, with all of the other challenges they face and with limited resources, is at best wishful thinking and at worst cynical politics.

In the last ten years, the high school landscape in Philadelphia was profoundly changed by the creation of a number of small schools. One purpose of such schools was to give a public option to Philadelphia parents who otherwise might move their kids into private schools or out to the suburbs, and they have been quite successful in this regard. There is a lesson to be learned here. When we decide that we need to do a better job of meeting the needs of a given population, and when we commit to doing it, we are capable of changing how things work.

The question is: are we willing to make the same commitment for our troubled kids as we are for our more privileges ones?