How Do at-Risk Children in Milwaukee Benefit from Alternative Schools?
The City of Milwaukee has a population of about 602,191 (an estimate from the U.S. Census as of 2007) and roughly 15% of Milwaukee's population is between the ages of 10 to 19 years (school age). There are about thirty-six alternative schools in Milwaukee to provide support and scholastic assistance to those students who are not producing in "regular" schools, including high schools in Milwaukee. This paper will review the support provided by two alternative high schools in Milwaukee:
One, Assata Alternative High School (2023 West Wisconsin Avenue); and two, Grandview High School (Seeds of Health) (1445 South 32nd Street)
Assata Alternative High School was founded in 1992 and operates full-day alternative programs for grades nine through twelve. Assata is a partner with the Division of Diversified Community Schools -- within the Milwaukee Public Schools system, according to the Milwaukee Public Schools Web site that is located online at this address (http://mpsportal.milwaukee.k12.wi.us). There are 117 students enrolled at Assata according to the MPS Web pages, and African-Americans make up 100% of enrollment (ninety-two percent of the 117 students have been identified as "at-risk."
The principal of Assata is Carlotta Prichett; when attempting to link from the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) Web site to Assata "Not Found" comes up, indicating the school has no operating Web site. But the MPS site offers information on Assata, including the mission statement. This is a program with the "fundamental aim" to provide a "holistic, student-centered program for at risk students" (at risk is defined in Wisconsin State Statute 118.153-Children At Risk). The "holistic" approach to students at Assata consists of strategies to "empower students through self-esteem, self-reliance, and increased knowledge for African-American culture and its relevance in today's society" (Section 2: School Profile, MPS).
The emphasis at Assata clearly is directed towards African-American students -- an "African centered cultural environment" -- with staff that are "sensitive" and "familiar with multiple pedagogical methods necessary to enable learning and personal development" (MPS). The precise reasons for students being assigned to Assata are not listed in the school's profile, but this school is clearly beneficial to at risk students whose families back them up, and who really desire to get a high school education.
Benefits for Assata students include: a) involvement with outreach programs like Habitat for Humanity; b) counseling and guidance; c) technology-assisted educational curriculum; d) drug and alcohol abuse education programs; e) before and after school tutoring; f) parenting programs; g) sports participation (basketball, football) in collaboration with nearby high schools; h) programs for students with "special needs"; and i) career counseling (MPS).
One of the most important skills any student must learn in order to be able to function as a literate, intelligent citizen, and in order to achieve those necessary skills one must be able to read. The Assata students are reading "below proficiency" according to the "Needs Assessment Data and Narrative and Summary Charts" (MPS). The achievement level is different between males (53% proficiency in reading scores) and females (87% proficiency) at Assata, and the data presented by MPS shows that students at Assata show skill deficiencies in reading in the areas of "determining meaning, understanding text, analyzing text, and evaluating extended text" (MPS).
While these deficiencies are serious and require extra resources, the whole point of an alternative school is to give students a better chance at achievement. To wit, alternative classroom environments have fewer students and provide extra tutoring opportunities to bring at risk students up to a level that will help them in their lives and in their careers after high school.
Grandview High School's principal is Jan Dahlman; Grandview serves grades 9-12 and has 240 at risk students. Of those 240 students about one-third are "school-age parents" and the remaining students are "dropouts, one or more years behind their age group in the number of credits attained" and two or more years behind their age group in "basic skill levels," according to MPS profiles and data. Forty-seven percent of the students at Grandview are "Hispanic"; 23% are African-American and 23% are Caucasian; and Asians and Native Americans make up about 2% each. The mission statement of Grandview is generally similar to Assata's mission, but the basic thrust of this program is to "graduate students who are prepared to become self-sufficient members of adult society" who will be able to "realize personal satisfaction and success."
As to the question of how at risk students truly benefit from a school like Grandview, one can take a quick glance at the profile and see that "individualized programming" is offered in a setting that "encourages self-development and success." Many times a student will drop out because he or she feels lost in a big school where it is not possible for a teacher (with 30 students in a classroom) to provide the one-on-one assistance that some young people require.
So, if they drop out but have nowhere else to go, what will they do? Where will they go? The answer based on many years of study into this dilemma is that some dropouts get involved in gangs, drugs, delinquency, crime, and other anti-social behaviors. In that sense, it is very obvious that alternative schools like Grandview offer an enormous benefit not just to the at risk student, but to the community as a whole.
At Grandview, all students participate "daily" in a "twenty minute Mentor Class," that supports their success in their schoolwork. Every staff member is also a "mentor teacher" for 15 students at Grandview, and the responsibilities include keeping track of their attendance, following their academic progress, and importantly, keeping an open line of communication to the student's home and to his or her family.
Research on Behavior Reassignment Schools: In the journal Preventing School Failure (Menendez 2007) the writer explains that for teachers and administrators in alternative school settings it is "important" that they "stay abreast of best practices applicable to the students they serve" (Menendez 19). That may seem like an obvious statement, but Menendez is referring to more than academics and policy; he alludes to the challenge for administrators to design and implement "ongoing staff development opportunities." Among the main source of opportunities for staff in alternative schools Menendez mentions is the Internet; he lists thirty Web sites that offer updated strategies and models from reputable, reliable institutions that specialize in providing technical and academic support to alternative schools. Teachers working with troubled young people should be informed and updated constantly on available resources to make their approaches more relevant to students of all ethnicities and in every category of academics.
For example the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice (EDJJ) (http://www.edjj.org) offers scholarly information regarding the "overrepresentation of youth with disabilities at risk for contact with the juvenile justice system" (Menendez p. 20). The site offers strategies to prevent delinquency and also strategies when "serving detained…youth." Another Web site Menendez references is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (http://www.pbis.org/main.htm); this site offers information for staff and teachers to "sustain effective preventative and proactive disciplinary practices" (Menendez p. 21).
Another scholarly article ("An Examination of School Climate in Effective Alternative Programs") takes a skeptical approach to alternative education as it exists in the U.S. today. This article presents the idea that very little "empirical evidence" is currently available to identify the "components necessary to create effective alternative educational programs" (Quinn, et al. 2006). The authors suggest there is a need for research into how best to approach at risk students in alternative programs that have seen "tremendous growth" over the past twenty to thirty years.
Three "exemplary alternative programs" in three "racially and economically diverse communities" are studied in this article; one, a county department of education program that serves adults and…