Focus

Alternative Schooling for Troubled Youth in Rural Communities

RURAL SCHOOLS by EUGENE P. LINTON


Try as we might, the ability to meet the needs of all students in traditional high schools is becoming more difficult all the time.

Challenges that once faced students in urban and suburban districts now have found their way to rural America, where school administrators are faced with the task of meeting these needs with limited fiscal and support resources.

In Mercer County, Ohio (the leading agricultural county in the state), school districts are experiencing a growing number of students who just don’t fit in the traditional school setting. Many of the challenges once viewed as strictly urban problems are becoming increasingly common here. In an environment in which two-parent families are still the norm, teen-age pregnancy and alcohol and drug abuse are new to us.

To meet the needs of these students, our schools have joined forces with the entire community, and the beginning results are exciting.

Alternative Needs
Alternative education can take many forms. Typically, it is geared toward students who are either discipline problems in their traditional high schools or who need specialized academic programs because they were not progressing in the general academic classroom. Both types of programs are needed in many rural communities.

But lasting change doesn’t happen quickly. For an alternative-school program to succeed, ample time must be spent assessing the needs of the community. School personnel, law enforcement representatives, child advocacy and mental health agencies, drug and alcohol treatment organizations, churches and temples and the court system must be involved in the process.

We found that using a committee of representatives from these community agencies was effort well spent. In just a couple of months we identified common needs and assessed the effectiveness of programs already established.

The team then formulated a program to address these needs. Although the problems may be most noticeable at school, the resolution of these problems was viewed as the responsibility of more than the educators.

Community Backing
Student truancy often leads to other delinquency and adult literacy problems. Therefore, continuing cooperation of the community agencies is essential, and sharing lessons learned from existing programs can provide direction to the goals that have been identified. For instance, one current program taught us how to individualize instruction, and from another we obtained ideas on how to provide a safe school environment.

If both discipline and academic problems have been identified, two separate learning environments often prove most beneficial. Discipline problems can be addressed in a strict short-term program, while the academic learning problems will need a longer, more concentrated effort. But both programs can operate in the same facility and even share staff to maintain fiscal efficiency, which is the approach we took in my district.

For students with discipline problems, an alternative academic setting is designed first and foremost as a way to avoid out-of-school suspension, a method that has proven to be highly ineffective as a means of punishment. Students often enjoy out-of-school suspension. This fact, coupled with the failing grades often associated with that option, makes a student’s success when he or she returns to school highly unlikely.

For a discipline program to be successful, it needs to be strict and offer the student very few freedoms. Students arrive and leave on school-arranged transportation with their assigned work for the day. They are given individual work stations and are not free to move around the room.

Talking to fellow classmates is not permitted and total isolation from peer interaction is essential. Our classrooms are monitored by video cameras, and students who break classroom rules may be removed by law enforcement officers and forced to appear in juvenile court for a probation violation.

Always Flexible
Academic-opportunity programs are much more involved and require many more resources. The reasons for lack of academic success vary widely and thus require diverse programs and services. These students have demonstrated a lack of academic advancement at the junior and senior high school levels, and without intervention they are likely to drop out of school. In the two years since we instituted this program, we have seen the dropout rate of these troubled students fall from nearly 100 percent to less than 30 percent.

For these alternative programs to succeed, more than academic intervention must be present. We have found that students who have not been successful in a typical classroom do much better in programs housed away from the traditional school setting.

Cooperation among the various agencies involved with the students is essential for progress to be made. Opportunity students and their parents must agree to abide by the requirements of the program developed for each of them in the admittance conference. Mandatory drug testing, as a case in point, may be required to determine whether such a problem exists with a particular student, so that treatment, if necessary, can be prescribed.

Flexibility in the opportunity program is also essential. The curriculum must allow for the many individual needs of students, including accommodations such as part-time programs for young parents who need to work to provide for their families.

But ensuring this flexibility is undoubtedly our most difficult challenge. Coordinating service-learning activities, class work, job schedules and counseling sessions can be a logistical nightmare. Nonetheless, I believe every staff member of the alternative school would say the rewards are worth it.

Eugene Linton is superintendent of Mercer County Educational Service Center, 441 E. Market St., Celina, OH 45822. E-mail: mc_supt@noacsc.org