April 6th, 2010

Paul Vallas in New Orleans: Student-Centered Alternatives - A Discussion

On our last trip to New Orleans, we spent time in two ‘alternative’ schools — schools designed to serve students who have failed in, or been failed by, ‘traditional’ schools.  Students in these alternative schools are sometimes there for behavioral reasons (they’ve been expelled or spent time in the juvenile justice system).  Sometimes the problem is academic.  In every case, the situation is complex.
We wondered how alternative schools can make a difference in the lives of these students, so we asked national experts to weigh in.
We hope that you’ll continue the discussion in the comment section, below.

david white


Director Emeritus, National Alternative Education Association

Traditional or regular education and schools are designed to teach mainstream students in a “manufacturing” or “production” manner. This approach has not changed much since the middle of the 20th Century. Even school reform efforts have focused on the “supply side” of education, not the “demand side.” In other words, regular education (and reform efforts) presume that most if not all students are “typical,” that the needs of these “typical” students are more similar than they are different in the student population, and so on.

In alternative education, a student is not considered typical; very often, each student has unique needs that might be rooted outside the school, in the home, in the neighborhood, and so on. These unique needs – these demands – might also be rooted in learning styles – and testing skills – that regular schools have not accommodated, or cannot or will not accommodate. These students and school-age youth might be under-performing academically, may have learning disabilities, emotional or behavioral problems, or may be direct or indirect objects of the behavioral problems of others. These students can be considered “at risk,” through no fault of their own. Alternative education offers additional opportunities to achieve academically and develop socially and emotionally in a different setting. Alternative education is “student-centered” rather than “system-centered.” Alternative education is the ultimate education reform.

The NAEA provides staff development and support to professionals who work on behalf of disenfranchised and at-risk youth. The NAEA supports professionals who work on behalf of youth who can benefit from alternative curriculum, instruction, and customized educational programming by (1) maintaining effective guidelines for best practice and (2) providing on-going professional development for those individuals who work on behalf of these youth.


Director of Retention Initiatives, District 79:  Alternative Schools and Programs, New York City

I have a colleague, Stacey, who earned her GED fifteen years ago. On the day she enrolled, the assistant principal said to her, “You’re 16?! You need to go back to high school.” When Stacey explained that neither of her two previous high schools wanted her back, the AP told her to check in every evening before class with an update on her progress. Most of the time she did, and when she didn’t, more often than not the AP would track her down. Within a year she earned her GED. (We’re fortunate that Stacey Oliger is our Deputy Director of Student Support Services, and her AP, Gloria Ortiz, is now the principal of a District 79 high school on Rikers Island.)

In New York City, nearly 200,000 16-24 year-olds are neither enrolled in school nor engaged in work. Every one of our students should have an adult who cares and pushes him/her to succeed at a high level, just as Stacey did. Too often we lower expectations and lack urgency in serving students who decide to reconnect to school, when they would most benefit from higher expectations and an increased sense of urgency. We don’t want our programs to be the last stop for our students. In order to be the stepping stone our students need, we must take advantage of the opportunity to propel them towards success.


President, The National Alternative Education Association

Director of Alternative Education, Arkansas Dept. of Education

Alternative schools and programs provide positive interventions while also helping students graduate and set post secondary career goals.  Students often cite individual relationships and smaller class sizes as being instrumental to their success in this placement.  In the alternative setting, innovative approaches are used such as including students in the decision making process. Students begin to take ownership in discussing what wasn’t working and what supports are necessary for them to succeed in the future.  Often, technology advancements are also applied to support the delivery of rigorous curriculum.

Alternative education provides thorough wrap-around support services for students.  Credit recovery, self pacing, remediation of skills, encouragement in art, music, self expression, social skills, physical activity, and individualized counseling are all unique assets to alternative education.  The hands-on, project based learning approach includes the student in a way that creates a connection and purpose for learning.  The Exemplary Practices published by the NAEA (National Alternative Education Association) demonstrates necessary components to provide a positive culture for these intervention programs.  Some students that feel disconnected from peers in a traditional setting flourish in the alternative setting due to the “family atmosphere” and acceptance for all students.

michael haggen


Deputy Superintendent, Recovery School District, New Orleans, LA

If an alternative school does not take students who were failed at a traditional school, the student does not have another option to go to public school.  Those students who drop out of school after being failed in regular schools have less of a chance of getting employment.  The students often end up in the criminal justice system.

Often times [at a traditional school], students who make many poor choices continue to do so because of the lack of intervention services, which are services for students who have been identified having a special need.  Some special needs include emotional disturbance, learning disabilities in reading or math, attention deficit disorders, and attention deficit hyperactive disorder.

The difference an alternative school (Multiple Pathway Network School) in the Recovery School District New Orleans could make is more individualized attention.  The student teacher ratio is much smaller, and each school is required to have at least 1 full time social worker, special education specialist and  counselor, two student interventionists, part time nurse, life skills course and a mandatory once a week meeting for the students and social worker or counselor.  In the Recovery School District, we recognized that the students need to be reengaged in the learning process and must have the proper parameters and tools to do so.    Alternate placement gives students another chance and accepts them when no one else will, but it is important to have clear expectations, consequences and rewards.

Students in the alternative setting learn to come to the staff when they have conflict at home or school.  They share what is going on so they will not make a poor choice and come to value the new opportunity they are given.  Some of our students that have met all of the criteria to transition back to a traditional school by passing all classes, being present in school at least 85% of the time and not having any major incident, request to stay at the alternative school or come back after they have reentered a traditional school.  The students say, “The teachers and counselor never meet with me”, or “They don’t care.”  The alternative setting exposes the students to all the possibilities that are available for them when they complete high school.  The students learn and respect that failure is not an option.

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1 comment

As Dennis White noted, alternative education students are often placed “at risk,” through no fault of their own. There is a broadening definition of ‘disadvantaged’ that includes emerging populations of students who are experiencing life stresses that place them at significant social and emotional stress (including those whose homes are in foreclosure, chilren of divorce and family and community violence,and children from countries in conflict. Alternative education — which frequently represents a pejorative label — is often the only educational setting that can help the student negotiate chaotic lives and build bridges to learning and emotional safety.

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