One Size Doesn't Fit All

Henrico County's alternative programs pave new paths for even its youngest lost souls by Mark A. Edwards and Vicki B. Wilson

Marcus, an 8-year-old, is a sure bet to cause a disruption in his 3rd-grade classroom every day. Despite the usual interventions, such as timeouts and appointments with the school counselor, his behavior has changed little.

As a rising 6th grader, Christine never has liked school and has a low self-image. Learning is difficult for her. Consequently, she spends most days at home complaining of headaches.

Angelica is a single, teen-age mother who must work to help her own single mother make ends meet for their household of six. She is not sure if she will ever be able to complete high school.

In school systems across the nation, students with serious needs, such as Marcus, Christine and Angelica, have increased dramatically. The challenge is to reach beyond the traditional schooling approach and find ways to help these students. Attendance problems, discipline issues and lack of motivation prevent students of all ages from having positive academic experiences.

The development of alternative programs and alternative schools provide different pathways for students who need a vastly different approach. These alternatives are becoming more promising and widespread than ever. Initially, their purpose was dropout prevention at the secondary level. Now these second-chance options are fast becoming the lifeline for elementary and middle school students, as well.

Redirected Energies

Henrico County, a large system with urban and suburban characteristics outside Richmond, Va., has seen early successes in its alternative schools. As the 42,000-student body grew more diverse in recent years, so did their special educational needs. It became apparent we would need to expand the pathways leading to graduation to serve more challenging students.

From an administrative standpoint, intervention helps the students receiving the specialized service, but it also helps traditional school staffs so they can then redirect their energies on students who are well adjusted in a traditional school setting.

With support from the school board, the district introduced an array of alternative programs to promote success among students who seemed to be losing their bearings on the traditional education path.

While each program is different in scope, they share common elements.

Each program is highly structured and emphasizes high standards for behavior, attendance and achievement. Low pupil-teacher ratios foster individualized attention and warm, accepting relationships. Expectations are clear, fair and consistent. Students learn to accept personal responsibility for their grades, attendance and behavior.

The curriculum in these programs centers on basic skills, and teachers emphasize how these skills apply to real-life experiences. A strong parental involvement component includes a commitment by program staff to communicate weekly about student progress.

While Henrico County's alternative high school has been in place for more than 20 years, it was apparent that options were needed for younger students needing early intervention. The district opened an alternative school for middle school students, Mount Vernon, in 1995. New Bridge Elementary, serving 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, joined Henrico's lineup of alternative programs last fall. In addition, specialized opportunities, including an evening school, have been developed to help students obtain a high school diploma.

Elementary Alternative

Even though some in the community questioned the need for an alternative school for such young students, nobody could disagree that children like Marcus needed more focused attention. The time teachers spent addressing disruptive behavior was valuable time lost to instruction.

When a neighborhood church became available for sale, we identified local and state funding to purchase the site and then renovate it to include classrooms, cafeteria and gymnasium. Now in its second year, New Bridge Elementary School offers 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classes with about 12 students in each. Students enter New Bridge through a referral process, initiated by the principal of the traditional school, a teacher or parent with input from the counselor.

Careful attention was paid to staffing New Bridge. The staff members include a lead teacher/administrator, three classroom teachers, a half-time counselor, two instructional assistants, a secretary and itinerant resource teachers who come to the school weekly for art, music and physical education instruction.

Lessons are individualized and student-centered and mentoring is in place as a strong reinforcement. Reading instruction is a focus area for all students. Each New Bridge student is working directly with a University of Richmond graduate student twice a week as their individual mentor who helps the student with social skills, self-discipline and academic skills.

Teachers already report improvements in class performance, especially attendance and behavior. Academic performance will be analyzed following statewide assessments this spring to gauge the success of the two-year-old program.

A mother whose daughter is in her second year recently told us, "We were sinking deeper each day until Dee started at New Bridge. Now she is gaining confidence and a desire to learn and to please. Thank goodness we had this choice."

Middle Level Difference

If parents and staff believe students are ready to accept the responsibilities of proper behavior, attendance and academics, students who complete New Bridge Elementary may enroll in a comprehensive middle school. The successful return to a traditional setting demonstrates that the student has matured in both self-control and academic skills.

However, the transition to middle school can be difficult for even the most confident students, so those who are not ready for a traditional school environment may be referred to—or may choose—the alternative middle school.

Mount Vernon, also located in a renovated church, opened its doors in the fall of 1995 and enrolls about 150 students in grades 6-8. The staff includes a principal, an administrative intern, 12 teachers and a full-time counselor.

Students are referred by their zone school, applications are screened and students who meet the profile are admitted. Parents, students and the school enter into a contract, with everyone agreeing to work cooperatively. Students enroll at Mount Vernon for a minimum of one school year.

The small classes (13:1 student-teacher ratio) promote personalization and high expectations. Students are required to wear uniforms, and discipline is based on zero tolerance. The school fosters close home-school communication and strong community partnerships with businesses and colleges.

Like New Bridge, the full curriculum centers on reading instruction—vocabulary, word analysis and comprehension—as well as reading in the content areas. A strong writing strand also is integrated throughout the curriculum and includes instruction in mechanics, usage, composition and written expression. Mathematics classes incorporate use of manipulatives and technology. Students who need to strengthen specific objectives receive special tutoring.

Classes that focus on decision making and conflict resolution—skills considered integral to academic success—also are part of the curriculum.

The successful transition of each New Bridge or Mount Vernon student to the next level of schooling is taken seriously. Staff members from the sending and receiving schools meet to discuss each student individually. Each student is scheduled carefully to ensure a good fit with courses, class times and teachers.

An assigned transition mentor closely monitors the student's attendance, grades and behavior at the new school and makes communication between home and school a priority. This encouragement and support are important ingredients in a personalized approach.

High School Alternatives

Virginia Randolph Community High School has served Henrico students for more than 20 years.

The school enrolls approximately 350 students in grades 9-12 each year. Some students are assigned to the school based on their academic and behavioral needs. The majority apply to attend the school, attracted by the student-centered program designed to meet their individual needs.

Prior to admission, students participate in a screening activity run by the district's Center for Career Assessment Services. The student and a parent must attend a community orientation as well as a mandatory interview with the vocational instructor. Together, they develop a career plan.

The staff at Virginia Randolph includes a principal, an assistant principal, an administrative aide, a guidance counselor and a guidance resource technician. The guidance technician provides students with assistance in applying for jobs, trade schools, colleges and scholarships.

The school's goal is to "reclaim, restore, reconnect, redirect and rekindle their interests in learning and achieving" through vocational and educational opportunities.

Teachers divide each class into quarter units. Students earn a credit in each nine-week unit, which ends with a 90-minute assessment. Students have four curricular options: a 1½-year vocational certificate, a 2½-year vocational certificate, a 21-credit diploma or a 23-credit diploma. The time required to obtain a high school diploma or a vocational certificate varies for each student.

To complement the courses required for a diploma, students may pursue one of 11 vocational programs: auto body, auto service, brick masonry, business, carpentry, culinary arts, electricity, horticulture, maintenance mechanics, printing and travel and tourism. Each student receives individual attention with a particular emphasis on regular attendance and preparation for the job market.

Last year, 48 students earned their high school diplomas and received a total of $3,900 in post-secondary scholarships.

Special Needs

Each of Henrico's eight comprehensive high schools has a center-based program devoted to a particular interest area. Centers include engineering, leadership development, communications, fine arts, foreign language immersion, math/science technology, humanities and a full International Baccalaureate program.

Virginia Randolph houses the Center for Diversified Studies, where a full-time coordinator creates tailor-made programs that are student self-directed. Learning opportunities are designed for each student and may involve schools and teachers throughout the county.

Students from any Henrico County High School may apply to this center to complete the classes they need to meet graduation requirements. Students are provided opportunities to complete programs commensurate with their levels of achievement, skills, interests or needs. The program offers courses leading to an advanced studies general diploma and/or completion of a vocational technical certificate.

Some students are not able to attend classes during the traditional school day. New Bridge Evening School, which shares the same facility as New Bridge Elementary, provides an opportunity for these students to pursue a high school diploma in the evenings. Classes are held from 5 to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday.

Students can complete one class each quarter for a maximum of four credits in an academic year. Students may enroll in English 11, English 12, U.S. history, U.S. government and/or integrated math at no cost. Instruction is personalized and emphasizes learning and study skills.

A lead teacher/administrator supervises the program, which employs a staff of part-time teachers. In its second year, New Bridge Evening School already has graduated 36 students who otherwise were at risk of dropping out.

Yet another special population of students are those who have significant discipline problems that keep them and their classmates from learning. We run two programs for those students who have serious behavior infractions and are in danger of expulsion.

New Start is a program for middle school students in grades 6-8 who need structure to develop their social skills, decision-making skills and conflict management skills as well as maintain their academic skills. Individual progress is closely monitored as students work to increase their level of academic performance. This year, New Start has an enrollment of 21 students.

Basic School, serving 25-30 students, is an alternative for high school students who have received long-term suspensions or who have returned to the school system through juvenile and domestic relations court.

This controlled learning environment is aimed at preparing students for a high school diploma or GED. Students may increase their proficiency in the areas of mathematics, English and history and benefit from individual instruction, individual counseling and individual goal development for adult life. Last year, Basic had a 100 percent graduation/GED rate.

Both New Start and Basic School are housed at the Virginia Randolph Community High School complex. Five teachers and three instructional aides provide instruction and counseling.

Alternate Paths

These Henrico County alternative schools are pathways for the growing number of students who lose their way along the traditional road of schooling.

The schools' successes have been supported by funding from the school board (which incorporated operational and capital investment as part of the budget process) and the community, effective leadership, committed faculty and staff members. Intense staff development in team building and classroom and behavior management as well as best practice instructional methods for students with high-risk profiles also contributes.

These alternative schools are about 40 percent more expensive than traditional schools for two reasons: significantly lower class sizes and considerably more tutorial and focused individualized programs.

For example, the district spends $2,000 on average more per year for a student at Mount Vernon Middle School than we do for a student at Wilder Middle School, a traditional school.

The return on the investment of resources indicates the efforts are well worth the commitment, however. In the past six years, the free lunch population has doubled, yet the aggregate student scholarship dollars have increased from $4 million to $8 million. Student attendance is at 95.4 percent, and suspension/expulsions are down by 30 percent over six years.

Since the state standards accreditation requirements (based on student achievement) were adopted, Henrico County has increased the percentage of accredited schools from 19 percent to 60 percent. One of the proudest successes is the lowest dropout rate ever reported by the school system: 1.93 percent.

These alternative routes for our students are paying huge dividends.

Mark Edwards is superintendent of the Henrico County Public Schools, P. O. Box 23120, Richmond, Va. 23223. E-mail: maedward@henrico.k12.va.us. Vicki Wilson is assistant superintendent for instruction in the Henrico County Public Schools.