Backstory: How Real-Life Circumstances Created the Need to Bend the Arc of Educating Students beyond Traditional Boundaries
As the leader of a pilot school identified as an alternative program for overage students, I embraced the school’s reputation of being the place students in search of a second chance could realize their goal of earning a diploma. Having been a not-so-ordinary student myself throughout my years in education, I was pleased to now be able to inform students that their decision to attend their new school gave them the opportunity to press a “reset” button and experience education differently from their previous school. But I knew that their challenges were magnified by the many obstacles outside of school they were trying to deal with while pursuing their education. Their struggles followed them to and through the school doors.
Often, these struggles were the biggest contributing factor to what is commonly known as school hopping, a widespread practice used by many of our students. Once students turned sixteen, they had the right to transfer into another high school—and then another . . . and another. So when they encountered failure because of excessive absences—or continually experienced academic challenges in classes they attended on a regular basis—they exercised this right. There were students who transferred to several high schools prior to arriving at what would for many be their final and finally successful destination.
Another critical factor influenced their decision to discontinue the cycle of transferring from one school to many others: they were running out of time. Since students generally were not permitted to remain enrolled beyond the age of twenty-two, by age nineteen and twenty they realized that the window was slowly closing for any hope of achieving their aspirations of earning a diploma. It became clear that they had a finite period of time to pursue a diploma in high school.
Our challenge was inheriting students who needed an education in academics—and in learning how to safely unpack emotional baggage. For too many students the contents of the baggage, which kept accumulating because of a lack of counseling over the span of their lives, hindered their ability to arrive at school ready to learn or to sustain their focus for extended periods of time. Our goal as a school was to find effective ways to help students navigate through their real-life challenges so they could learn strategies to safely unpack the emotional baggage they arrived at our school burdened with—while simultaneously earning their diplomas. If they allowed us to assist them as they improved in both areas, they would then become better positioned for future success.
At the start of my tenure as school leader, the staff and I were determined to educate the students within the traditional guidelines followed by other high schools. Offering the same menu of courses, class schedules, and school policies was intended to mirror the practices of traditional high schools. But from the start, you didn’t have to be very observant to notice the variety of ways in which students were repelled by (and in time rebelled against) the fact that “norms” from their previous school were being replicated in their new school, which they had hoped would be different.
Levels of disengagement came in the form of skirmishes, angry verbal altercations, and, over time, the decision to just not attend school. Many students began choosing to use school hours to meet other obligations outside of school. Those who were parents and struggling with day care issues decided it was easier to stop paying someone to look after their child, so they could put that money to a different use, like paying rent or buying baby formula and diapers.
The decline in student attendance added another layer of frustration and tension between the school staff and our students. They, and we, knew they were required to attend school. Though we were trying to help them, we weren’t finding enough common ground. The students responded in frustration because they could see that their responsibilities—as parents, as sole income earners for their economically struggling families, or as young adults living on their own—had a more important imperative: to maintain their obligation as primary income earner and prevent being evicted (and consequently having to find another friend’s or relative’s sofa to sleep on).
For the first few years, the school, which was beholden to district and state mandates, drew a hard line. Efforts to hold students accountable for missing school became a necessity, and we thought it would increase compliance. It took some time to recognize the difference between students who were playing hooky from school and students who were driven by circumstances beyond the school’s control. With time and effort, we learned that those students, who we initially perceived as making poor choices, were beset with simply trying to navigate through desperate, impoverished conditions. Their meager resources, combined with low employment opportunities after school, were not enough to sustain them from one paycheck to the next. Predictably, when employers offered hours during their school day, students had no choice but to set school aside and focus on finding ways to survive.
The irony was that the school and students were on two different tracks, yet both motivated by the same thing: survival. For the school, measuring absences was often one form of assessing its overall performance and was used as a vehicle for determining eligibility status for remaining open or being targeted for closure. Alternative education programs were a magnet for students who had a variety of reasons for transferring into what they were led to believe was a place capable of relaunching them back onto paths toward earning a diploma. With schools forced to strictly adhere to district attendance policies, we had overlooked the need to redesign our programs to go beyond traditional boundaries and use a more humane approach. Meeting the students at the intersection of real-life challenges and their need for education was essential because it enabled us to achieve our mission to teach and effectively reach students as scholars with real-life concerns.
No longer content with adding more layers to a wall of frustration that was creating an impasse between the students and their school, we decided to perceive their baggage as our collective responsibility. This was the first of many initiatives we finally took to remedy the situation. The most critical step in bending our school’s arc toward a more compassionate culture was the decision to replace the practice of admonishing students with simply asking how we could help them mitigate their circumstances. We broadened our model of education to include the needs of the whole student, and this strengthened our partnerships with students and their families, who no longer perceived us, and their school, among the obstacles needing to be navigated around or let go.
There were no miraculous
spikes in attendance. Problems outside of school that were once treated as
invisible or given little thought were made more of a priority. Cultivating a
more compassionate culture enhanced our reputation, which in turn attracted
more student transfers who knew they would be welcome, despite whatever baggage
they brought with them. As was so often the case, poor school attendance was
one of the most frequent reasons for transferring to an alternative program. As
we inherited those with poor attendance habits, it was also a vexing and
complicated challenge for our school. We continued to develop and test multiple
outreach efforts to try to “reset” attendance habits. Some of our efforts were successful.
Others were not. But we never stopped trying.