Finding opportunities to fund alternatives

Debbie’s department chair group was the one who suggested reallocating savings from unanticipated retirements by a home economics teacher and a secretary in the guidance office and a vacant custodial position on the night shift caused by an employee who left for another job. By hiring part-time replacements for these positions with no expensive benefits, they saved enough to hire two certified teachers as teaching assistants at the high school.

Additional savings came by moving high school special education students into a new alternative high school with a work-study component. They were paying to send four special education students ($50,000 each) to other schools. Moving these students back to a new program in the school district saved one bus run and the salary and benefit costs for a bus driver and a school bus aide.

The savings also paid for two more certified teachers working as teaching assistants, a monitor to cover study halls previously covered by teachers and some extra hourly tutoring for academically struggling students.

As Debbie described her new alternative program to me, I couldn’t help but note that the structure and program details she had implemented matched closely with successful programs I had helped design and implement in different school districts as a high school principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent.

Debbie fully understood the chaos in too many students’ lives outside of school ultimately caused them to become dropouts. Her alternative program was designed to counteract that chaos. She also understood that while the national dropout rate had declined in recent years the improvements came to those districts that intervened with new successful approaches to help struggling students before they dropped out.

The alternative program’s students attended school for two and a half hours a day in one of three sessions: a.m., p.m. or evening. The students stayed in the same classroom for the entire two and a half hours (like they did in elementary school) and subject specific teachers, who had been relieved of study halls and who were paid a sixth-class stipend, taught an extra class period in the daytime a.m. and p.m. alternative program sessions.

At Rosemont, new subject-specific certified teachers who were hired as teaching assistants (in New York State there are many young candidates with teaching degrees looking for jobs) became regular full-time staff members of the daytime alternative program and received additional pay to work in the evening alternative program. A special education teacher was hired with the savings and served as the core primary teacher for the a.m. and p.m. program sessions.

The other new teaching assistants became regular staff in a daytime tutoring center that served students who were struggling academically. Teachers freed up from study halls by a monitor hired with the remaining savings helped in the daytime tutoring center and the daytime alternative program sessions.

The teaching assistants and some district teachers took on extra hourly tutoring assignments after school, at night and on weekends also paid for by the savings. The tutoring helped students who were struggling in Regents and honors courses.

The students in the three sessions of the alternative program completed an independent study curriculum for the courses required for a high school diploma. Each alternative program session was small (10-12 students) with multiple teachers in the room to provide one-on-one academic support for students. Since the students stayed in their classroom for the entire high school experience and didn’t move from classroom to classroom they developed a strong working relationship with the primary teacher in the program who worked with them for the full two and a half hours.

Debbie said the evening classes, which were managed by a certified teacher who needed an administrative internship to complete his school administrator certification, worked well for young mothers, for students who acted out in school (no appreciative audience to react to them) and for students who had to work during the day to help pay the bills. The subject specific teachers and teaching assistants and the administrative intern in the alternative evening session were paid an hourly rate with minimal benefit costs making it an inexpensive and academically effective addition to the school.

In addition to independent study online coursework, the alternative program students completed a 1,000 hour supervised paid work-study internship in a local business. For young mothers, the work study internship was 700 hours with a 300-hour parenting component. Debbie used one of her newly hired teaching assistants to help these students find internships and supervise the students’ work study and parenting experiences.

Debbie emphasized that the elementary school-like structure of the program with one primary adult forming a strong emotional bond with the student helped the potential dropouts in the alternative program overcome the frequent chaos in their lives. She used their vital statistics — poor attendance, failing grades and/or a rash of discipline problems to identify students who would benefit from a true alternative program.

I wasn’t surprised when Debbie told me the dropout rate for her school had been cut in half during the first year the program was in place and that dropouts for her school had been reduced to single digits during the second year of the program’s implementation. I had the same experience with similarly structured alternative high school programs in four different school districts. At Averill Park High School where I was the high school principal the dropout rate for the five years prior to the alternative program’s implementation was 11.5 percent (23 dropouts per year average) and for the three years after the program’s implementation the dropout rate was 3 percent (six dropouts per year average).

Debbie found out what I had found out. When students move into middle schools and high schools and begin the endless shuffle every 40-50 minutes from classroom to classroom their working relationships with adults become more tenuous. These students are working with eight or nine adults every day and none for more than 40-50 minutes each.

Secondary school teachers are working with 100-150 students. An elementary teacher knows her students better in October than a high school teacher knows her students in May.

The shift from elementary school to middle school can be very tough for any student, even those with all the advantages. The shift to middle school and high school for kids with problematic home situations and academic failure issues can become overwhelming. These students need to be taught, mentored, supported and monitored much more closely.