I recently read an article where the principal described his alternative school (a school where kids with serious behavior issues can get on track and the goal is to restore the students back to their home school). He said the MAP scores are improving, the staff high-fives the kids, and they have an “intervention room” where kids can go to cool off. They use positive reinforcement, rewards, and restorative practices. But some teachers are saying the students lack discipline and basically “run the school.” Do these alternative schools work?
What we’re talking about is “reform school,” the thing they used to threaten us with when we misbehaved back in the day. We imagined it as a kind of boarding school where discipline was rigidly enforced. Its task, we believed, was to kickstart wayward students from their errant paths back onto the narrow way using any legal means necessary.
Apparently either that was all a myth or the times have really changed. Now reform school is just, well, school, in all of its goofy splendor. The things you describe in your question are things that are trending in most public schools. And since there’s scant evidence that they work in “regular” school, the probability that they’re going to work with the most severe misbehaving students is one of the weirdest pipe dreams I’ve ever heard of.
The basic idea (an odd one) behind today’s reform schools seems to be that if we can separate the “bad kids” from the “good kids,” it will give the “bad” students a real opportunity to absorb the benefits they’re missing when they’re outnumbered by all those attention-soaking “good” students.
In that pursuit, alternative schools do get one thing right. Removing the “bad kid” from the other students is frequently a good move. Peer pressure is a real thing, and one rotten apple can spoil a whole bunch.
But if we want to take the next step and truly help the “bad kid,” we are doing him a grave injustice if we’re just going to beleaguer him with high fives, send him to a “cooling off” room whenever his temper flares (can I have one of those?), and sweep all of his misdeeds under the rug, biding our time until we can ship him back to his home school ASAP.
Speaking of that, why is getting the students back to their home schools the ultimate goal? Because to me that seems like a really small goal. Instead of focusing on gilding the kids to go backwards, why not make it our primary aim to prepare them for real life? Why not consider for a moment that “regular school” might not be working for them, and reform school is the better option? While we’ve got them there as a captive audience, why not do everything we can to change them, including, perhaps, something different, like maybe hands-on training in the industrial arts?
Another strategy with possibilities: tough love.
I knew a teacher who worked at an alternative school. She was the best thing that ever happened to those kids. From day one, she rode their backs about their attitudes and conduct. She made them dress with dignity. She taught them how to properly interact with adults. She took the time to teach them manners and respect. She was more interested in their character than in their MAP scores. Like me, she probably wondered what good a MAP score is when the kid is rotting in jail.
She was rough, tough, and ruthlessly demanding. She raised her voice when necessary and punished them when needed. Most vital of all, she really loved them. And do you know what?
They loved her back. They knew she was doing it because she cared about them. She would visit them in their homes, and she would revisit them whenever they left her program, just to make sure they were still on track. For many of her students, she probably saved their lives.
If you had walked into her classroom, you wouldn’t see anything as photogenic as fun games or high fives. But you would see kids turning their lives around.
Whatever happened to such “tough love?” Why is it all of a sudden a good idea to deal with a 16-year-old kid who is on the verge of prison the same way we’d manage a 6-year-old choir boy? Why did we stop being real? The stakes are too high to be anything less.
Maybe it’s time to reform our reform schools.