Long gone are the days that a one-size-fits-all education program could even be considered an effective option to meet the needs of every student. While an array of successful strategies associated with more traditional methodologies still have value today, we need to rethink how and when they are used. What happens in the classroom will always be of utmost importance, but specific programs need to be in place that serves the diverse needs of all students who are the most vulnerable. While a standardized classroom setting could be for some, others need more individualized supports. Students who find themselves receiving many detentions, suspensions, expulsions, or even incarcerations still deserve a quality education. Alternative learning programs provide the differentiated support and help for students who might have lost their way.
So why at-promise? As opposed to “at-risk,” “at-promise” promotes a more positive approach and has the potential to change the outcomes for the most vulnerable students. It encourages educators and other adults interacting with them to empower them and treat them as people with the promise to succeed.
The concept of alternative learning is not new by any means. Back when I was principal, we created “Knight School” to serve those kids who were either having consistent discipline issues or just couldn’t get up in the morning. The school within a school model was housed in the same building they would have attended but ran after school hours from 3:00 – 7:00 PM. We built a budget for Knight School, hired certified teachers for each content area, secured a program coordinator, and built-in a slew of counseling and transition services. Everything was tied to the same curriculum and standards needed for graduation but in a modified setting that included smaller class sizes. The goal was for these learners to graduate on time with their peers while not cutting any academic corners. In the end, it was quite successful.
The motivation for this post came from my longitudinal work with the ALPSS program within the HIDOE. It got me thinking about the many challenges both educators and students face, but sometimes the needed support isn’t there to assist both groups. While each alternative learning program is unique, consider the following as you either look to create or improve one in your district. These main components have been slightly adapted based on the ALPSS program.
Innovative Environment and Pedagogy
Provision of an effective and supportive learning environment that enables participating at-promise learners to improve their academic performance to attain applicable performance standards and graduate from high school. Flexibility in terms of the learning environment is pivotal, including start times, small group settings, unique classroom design, work-study options, and virtual coursework. In terms of pedagogy, personalized learning strategies and project-based learning should be emphasized.
There are reasons that these learners have not experienced success in traditional education settings. Alternative learning programs emphasize services and supports that help at-promise students develop appropriate social and emotional competencies.
While focusing on SEL is a priority, so is establishing an array of structures that address and remedy behavior issues that impact academic success while working to create a safe learning environment. Well-structured alternative learning programs use various counseling services, including intensive 1:1 and research-based classroom strategies such as Response to Intervention (RTI) and Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS).
While graduation is the goal, so is ensuring that these students have the competence and tools to succeed in life. Curriculum and standards attainment doesn’t equate to real-world preparedness. Transitional support services to at-promise students begin as they move to/from school to alternative learning programs and should continue as they graduate from high school to ensure college, career, and citizenship readiness.
As the African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Family engagement is an essential component of any alternative learning program. At the cornerstone is effective communication, something I emphasized extensively in Digital Leadership. This involves providing routine information and educating families on how the program works, having them involved in counseling sessions, and encouraging their children to take advantage of the opportunity to move past mistakes.
Resources and opportunities are critical to assist at-promise students with reaching their potential. The local community can offer a wealth of assets, including internships, mentoring, guest speakers, field trips, jobs, and financial backing that will aid in helping these learners get on a path to success. Here is where other aspects of digital leadership come into play beyond communications. Taking control of public relations and creating a positive brand presence will go a long way to securing and building community partnerships.
We all make mistakes. We don’t want these to define us, and the same can be said for the learners we serve. Certain students need educators more than we even know. As I stated in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, “All learners have greatness hidden inside of them. It’s the job of an educator to help them find and unleash that greatness.” Alternative learning programs provide the tools and supports needed to fulfill the promise of a quality education for all kids.