From 2005-2010, I was an administrator involved in developing and expanding an alternative program to support students who had either dropped out of high school or were on the verge of dropping out. My school district acknowledged the fact that there are situations when an alternative school is necessary to encourage students at risk to persevere and complete their diplomas. So Jameswood Alternative School (JAS) was developed and prides itself on making the school fit the child by trying to reach “every kid – every day” while maintaining high standards for all of its learners for daily attendance, academic performance, and appropriate behaviour.
For at-risk students, the focus is often on their stresses and distresses rather than on their educational goals. A major reason why students drop out is due to a high absentee rate. The reasons for missing large amounts of school can be, but are not limited to illness, mental health (either their own or a family members), problems with the law, substance abuse, behavioural concerns that lead to suspensions, or just a disconnect to their school. Most often, the students who are most likely to drop out have a feeling that they’ve lost control of their education. Therefore, setting an appropriate emotional climate is essential for at-risk students.
Educators need to orchestrate learning environments that are emotionally safe, providing freedom from rejection and intimidation – a classroom that has a low student-teacher ratio (12-1) with students choosing a schedule and courses that best meet their pace of learning. Within one class, all students may be working on different subjects at the same time. For at-risk students to gain the confidence back in their learning, they need to feel that they have a sense of control, have sufficient time to learn, and the ability to deal with or get assistance with their stress. In these environments, they are more likely to be successful. To effectively support at-risk students, it’s important that programs have high academic standards and a culture of positive expectations. Learning is relevant and often occurred in conjunction with work experience opportunities.
To provide students with a climate that gives them a sense of control and optimizes their learning, the development of the alternative school was based on these four factors
1. LEARNER-CENTERED CLASSROOM
All people learn through experience and a learner-centered classroom pays close attention to the knowledge, attitudes, and skills that students bring with them. It respects cultural differences and provides an environment that challenges students with developmentally appropriate learning experiences. As much as possible, subject material should be personally relevant and just challenging enough to encourage risk taking, but not so difficult that it encourages avoidance. Teachers must work hard to reach every child every day. Student schedules are flexible and choice is provided in the manner in which students meet curricular outcomes. Two methods for ensuring that the classroom is learner-centered are a self-paced module style or a big picture project based style. The module style of completing a course is generally set up by the teacher, but the student chooses the pace and can even pick the order in which modules get done. In the project-based method, students complete big picture projects of interest to them and with the help of the teacher, determine how curricular outcomes are met while completing the project. Key in both of these methods is the teacher working hard to build a strong relationship with the student by ensuring they are in contact with them every day even if the student is not at school.
2. KNOWLEDGE-CENTERED CLASSROOM
Our brains learn by making connections between what has been experienced and what that experience means to us. While student interest is important in the learning process, it should be a springboard for a deeper understanding. A knowledge-centered environment provides metacognitive strategies that further facilitate learning about things that matter to the student. Students should be encouraged to apply their learning to things beyond the four walls of the classroom. Encouraging students to engage in work experience, volunteerism and/or apprenticeship opportunities is important to help them realize that learning happens outside the school as well and is often just as – if not even more valuable. Classroom settings that provide ways to include the learning that happens outside of the classroom helps engage at-risk students and makes their learning relevant.
3. AUTHENTIC ASSESSMENT
Ongoing authentic formative assessment provides the most accurate picture of a student’s ability. While standardized tests cannot be eliminated, they’re not the only form of assessment that should be used in classrooms. Multiple methods of assessment should be used because behaviour is influenced by the setting in which it occurs and the skills that students possess may not necessarily be evident in a single test or assignment. Assessment should be learner-friendly; it should allow students to see their progress, and it should help the teacher identify problem-areas that should be addressed. Students must also be present in their own assessment. Ensuring students think about and are aware of where they’re at in their learning is key.
For example, in the first years of Jameswood Alternative School, students wrote – with support from the teacher – their own report cards and kept track of their own marks. Students reported that knowing exactly where they were in the course, how they were doing and what they had left to do was very motivating to ensure successful completion.
4. COMMUNITY-CENTERED PROGRAMS
Finally, programs for at-risk learners should be community-centered. Learning should have a direct connection to life. Students need to own the learning by doing something meaningful with the knowledge that they’ve gained. The organization should provide a number of learning opportunities for each student inside and outside the school. This allows the student to learn how to work cooperatively in school and in the workplace. Providing students the support of different organizations to allow for different opportunities is key to help them find something they are passionate about.
The location of Jameswood School was unique. Within the school there was an adult education program, daycare, a job finding program and many social services workers. There was always something for the student. If they didn’t finish their program at JAS, they could easily continue into a different program that fit their needs. So, instead of dropping out of a program, they simply drop into another one that works for them.
A culture of care and support is necessary for the success of at-risk students. A comprehensive support system needs to be in place to respond to all of their needs. Reaching every child every day is key to reducing the potential for students to drop out. An important message that staff at Jameswood Alternative School often spoke about was ensuring students, who had dropped out or were on the verge of dropping out, was the inherent value of ‘school’ in whatever form it takes. This, in turn, will have implications for these student’s siblings and or their children.