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Alternative Schools Work to Educate At-Risk Students

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Students at the Cleveland Heights alternative school get a graduation cap - out of paper - for every class they pass.

Last week’s school shooting in Chardon sparked a new round of discussion on how to prevent future school violence.

In the past, part of the answer has been sending at-risk students to alternative schools, like the one alleged shooter T.J. Lane attended.

But not everyone thinks alternative schools should just be a place to hold troubled youth.

[audio href="" title="Alternative Schools Work to Educate At-Risk Students"]Alternative schools serve a range of students, from those who have difficulty in school to those were serious drug problems.[/audio]

Details about T.J. Lane’s background emerged just hours after the shootings happened.

Lane would wait at Chardon High School for a bus to take him to Lake Academy Alternative School.

Lake Academy declined an interview request and won’t disclose why Lane was referred to the school. Its website says it serves “at-risk” students – a catch-all term used by most alternative schools.

Brian Williams heads the alternative programs for Cleveland Heights. He says his students succeed because his staff is convinced of their success.

For Brian Williams, alternative programs director for Cleveland Heights, that means "at risk of not graduating high school.”

“We’re talking about issues of truancy, you may have some students that may have been making poor choices, they may find themselves experiencing issues with the criminal justice system in the past," Williams says. "But many of our students it was really just a lack of motivation.”

Students at an alternative school might have had a serious drug problem, or they may just have skipped too many classes.  Williams says the point is that these students did not perform well in the traditional school setting.

Senior Kiara Herst says she's doing better at the alternative school than she did before, thanks to the online and flexible curriculum. She recently won a writing competition, if she wins in the next round her story will be made into a short film.

The students at the Cleveland Heights alternative school only spend half the day at the school. The school provides them laptops to follow their own curriculum online.

Senior Quantina Scales says the school is "better, but harder, because you have to teach yourself."

Quantina says learning online can be challenging, "but you get help from the teachers, and they are really good teachers.”

Teachers are key to helping alternative school students.

In fact, senior Santwan Jones says his math teacher, Brad Hallam, is the "best teacher ever." At least, the best teacher Santwan has ever had.

This is Hallam’s first time working with at-risk students, but he says it's no different from working with his previous middle school students.

“They’re just kids," Hallam says. "They come with a certain amount of baggage but everybody does, and at the end of the day they’re just kids.”

Math teacher Brad Hallam says his students at the alternative school are just like any other students.

Hallam says outsiders often make assumptions about his school. He says there can be an interpretation that alternative schools are "just places that you have problematic students - whatever that is - and now you can just section them off and remove them from the general population."

But segregating problematic students is exactly what many alternative schools end up doing.

Terry Cash is the assistant director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University. He says Ohio laws around alternative education advocate for removing at-risk students from regular schools.

“It’s really no wonder that people have an opinion that alternative schools are for bad kids,” Cash says.

He says 80 percent of the more than 10,000 alternative programs in America are punitive. That means students are ordered to attend

That wasn’t always the case.

Alternative schools used to be options for students who struggled academically, but over the years they were redefined to serve students who had trouble with more than school work.

A turning point came in 1999.

Cash says, "it was right after Columbine that we began to see schools and districts and superintendents who were saying 'we’ve got to be able to identify these kids who are at risk and put them in an environment that will protect our other kids who want to learn and aren’t disruptive.'”

Since then alternative schools have increasingly been used as a way to protect the “good” kids from the “bad” ones.

“I think that’s the prevailing thought, you know, 'if we could just somehow identify these kids and get them over here in an environment, these things will not be happening.' And unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.”

–Terry Cash, Assistant Director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University

“I think that’s the prevailing thought, you know, if we could just somehow identify these kids and get them over here in an environment, these things will not be happening," Cash says. "Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.”

In the short-term, alternative schools have proven to be successful at keeping at risk students in school and out of trouble.

But there is less evidence to gauge their long-term results.

Cash says that’s because many cash-strapped alternative schools focus more on keeping kids in line than on solving the emotional and social issues that caused them to act out in the first place.


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