Evan’s public high school experience had a rocky start. In his first semester at Bay View High School he was truant almost forty days, suspended half a dozen times, and received U’s in all his classes. His life outside of school was characterized by several arrests, gang activity and family problems.
Ron Meier has been a secondary teacher in MPS for seven years, yet has never been assigned to lunch room duty, or sat in a smoky teacher’s lounge wonderings why he went into teaching in the first place. For the past seven years he has worked intensively with small groups of “at risk” youth: students highly unlikely to deal successfully with the size, distractions, and impersonal nature of regular high schools.
Ron and Evan are part of MPS’s little publicized Alternative Education Program. Seven years ago, this program involved two sites, 120 students, and six staff people. Today it is a virtual system within a system, composed of twenty-five programs in which 84 full time teachers serve over 1,200 students. ‘While varied in structure and approach most MPS alternative programs share these features: small size, low student/teacher ratios, and an emphasis on providing basic academic instruction.
Seven years ago, a young person like Evan may have clung to the fringes of the MPS system, piling failure upon failure, suspension upon suspension, and eventually ended up a drop-out or “delinquent” to be dealt with by the juvenile courts. Seven years ago, Ron was actively involved in a network of community based learning centers which viewed themselves as alternatives to the public school system. How they both ended up as part of the MPS alternative education system is a story which involves drop-out rates, community pressure, desegregation, and, of course, money.
Until fairly recently the failure of many students from poor and/or non-white backgrounds to complete high school was viewed by government officials and business leaders with some complacency Milwaukee’s industrial economy was able to absorb non-completers into factories where they could generate profits and taxes. Many of these factories are now closed, and the demand for unskilled or semi-skilled labor has shrunk. Young people with poor skills remain unemployed or underemployed in minimum wage service industries. Even the military is accepting few recruits who have not completed high school.
Since the job market offers fewer opportunities for young people with poor basic skills, the persistence of widespread academic failure in MPS has caused growing alarm.
In some high schools the average grade point average is less than a D+ and more than half the grades given to ninth graders are U’s. The Milwaukee Public School system has an-annual drop-out rate of almost 12% – and the figures for minority students are much higher. The school administration now considers 9,000 young people in the system to be “at-risk.”
These pressures, along with concerns about discipline, school safety, and the declining tax base, are important motivating factors in the establishment and rapid growth of alternative programs within the school system. It has always been the stated position of the education establishment, from the State Superintendent on down, that every young person should, and can, earn a high school diploma. Yet, as the statistics show, thousands of young people do not. Rather than put the full blame for this failure on the student or other social or economic factors beyond the control of the school system, alternative school advocates put part of the blame on the system itself. Many feel that the school system acts as a sorting mechanism which helps preserve class and racial inequality. Others feel that the public schools are just too big of an institution to effectively educate each young person. In the late sixties, many adults unhappy with the public schools became involved in establishing independent, community based alternative schools which sought to realize their own vision of what education should be. Not surprisingly, many of these same people were active in urging MPS to set up alternative programs of its own, to offer more flexible and responsive ways in which a young person might complete their secondary education in Milwaukee.
Fifteen years ago, many alternative school students were white middle class refugees from the smothering and regimented routine of the traditional high school. Now the MPS alternative programs, and most of the remaining independent alternative schools, primarily serve low income minority youth who have little interest in silk screening, Zen or consciousness raising. The minimal structure and emphasis on student freedom which often characterized alternative schools has been largely supplanted by more traditional approaches. Many MPS alternative sites have Assistant Principals, hall passes, and tightly structured curricula. Many alternative teachers who once maintained a careful aloofness from the official school system now work in an MPS alternative program or a community school which receives funding and some guidelines from MPS.
No “Typical” Alternative Schools
What is it that these alternative programs offer that is different, or better, than the traditional secondary school?
There is no one answer, nor is there one model of a successful alternative program. They range in design from the small high school outpost programs, which are located in the neighborhood of a large high school and staffed by one teacher, to the alternative high school programs at 68th Street and Lincoln Center which are structured like miniature high schools. Some are joint programs between MPS and community organizations like the Cornerstone Learning Center and the Aurora Weier Education Center. Others were established to address discipline problems and provide additional services to “at-risk” youth, such as the Lapham Park Assessment Center. Often these programs provide employment and counseling services. Denise Crumble, coordinator of Cornerstone and former tutor at Multicultural High* SchooL cites* two primary factors in the success of their program, “Teamwork between the Cornerstone staff and the MPS staff without getting hung up on who’s certified to do what and commitment.” Ron Meier, teacher at the Demmer Center, MPS’s first true alternative program, talks about his ability to develop relationships with students in a nonthreatening, more personal atmosphere where young people can earn credit and promotion free of some of the anxieties present in larger programs.
The establishment and expansion of alternative programs within MPS has not been without struggles and problems.The idea that MPS had a program within the traditional system for every student’s needs dies a hard death. While MPS has committed considerable resources to these projects, some officials believe, in the words of one administrator, that “there’s no teaching going on there.” One central office supervisor was overheard saying, “I don’t believe in alternative programs…once the kid goes to one of the alternative programs, they never want to go back to a regular high school.”
Aside from the issue of their effectiveness, the existence of the alternative programs raises serious questions about what is going on in the regular schools. Eighty percent of the students in the alternative schools are black. One Teacher asks, “Are we creating another track in the school system for poor, black kids?”
Undoubtedly, alternative settings.can be a lifesaver for many students. But they can also serve as a safety-valve. With a clean conscience administrators can shuttle-the most troubled students out of regular-high schools into alternative programs without asking what it is about regular schools which turns off so many students, particularly those who are black and poor. Without a careful analysis of what goes on in alternative programs, and why alternative programs need to exist, these potentially innovative educational environments can degenerate into one more oppressive experience for the students they are supposed to serve. Unhappy, troublemaking, or non-achieving students can be quietly removed to alternative programs where a subtle set of lower expectations allows them to drift further into academic failure. The prime way to avoid this danger is to build upon and learn from the alternative classrooms and schools where students are succeeding.
Marty Horning is a teacher at Project Excel, an alternative program in Milwaukee,.