Guest Column

An ‘Old Doc’ Finds a Stern Test in Today’s Classroom

by Larry Ballwahn, retired superintendent, Wilton, Wis.

As a superintendent, I spent much of my time dealing with the political and the theoretical. So when I returned to the classroom recently, after retiring from administration, I knew my priorities would have to change. Just how much though wasn’t immediately apparent.

Toni O’Keefe, the lead teacher at the charter school where I now teach English and social studies, had fostered a sense of community among the diverse group of students. Furthermore, much of her teaching centered on the students’ personal needs and experience. They often discussed subjects of immediate concern.

My more academic approach, based on the belief that we had to get these students ready for the next test, held little interest for the students and brought little success. Before these students could be ready for testing, they, like me, had to learn some new tricks. They needed experiences in learning that would convince them of its present value, rather than some intangible future worth. They needed to see the merit of applying themselves to learning and of delaying immediate gratification for future success.

I, on the other hand, needed to recognize that my students simply were trying to get by. They were exhibiting a set of values acquired from the day-to-day survival actions of their families. They lacked interest in preparing for a future they felt they might not have and took their fun when and where they could get it. That combination meant that maintaining an appropriate classroom atmosphere was nearly impossible, constantly stressful and very necessary.

Trying My Theory
Thirty-five years as a public school teacher and administrator certainly should have prepared me to teach a relatively small group of at-risk students—or so I thought.

Following my retirement as superintendent in Horicon, Wis., I accepted the offer of Fred Wollenburg, special education director at the educational service agency in my region, to test a lifetime of instructional theory and skill development against the challenges brought by at-risk students in an alternative education setting.

That is to say, after 30-plus years of telling how teaching should be done, I became a teacher of secondary students with considerable needs at the Juneau County Charter School.

With a general mission to prepare students for the annual state tests, I had begun my teaching efforts with a modified academic approach. I figured if my students could be exposed to the subject matter they had missed in a way that allowed them to succeed, they would embrace their success and learn. They didn’t.

“This is boring … When will I ever use this stuff? … Doc, do we have to do social studies; can’t we just talk?” The amount of factual knowledge they displayed on virtually any school subject was abysmal.

“Raise expectations,” the politicians said. “Give them challenging materials,” the educational theorists said. Both camps apparently have forgotten Psychology 101 or aren’t aware of the real lives these young people are forced to lead.

Human beings just don’t worry about the future when their current needs aren’t even close to being met. These young people face a tough reality. In their daily lives they lack housing and a steady diet. Most lack one or more parents and come from families dealing with addiction and/or physical and sexual abuse. They exhibit dysfunctions of every sort, usually made worse by a lack of financial resources. They all know failure and most know poverty. Maslow’s hierarchy theory about meeting basic needs first never was more apparent to me. How could I actually put first things first?

Different Approach
As a principal and superintendent, I often had recommended hands-on, authentic instruction to my teachers. I was well aware that experiential learning was usually more appropriate for discouraged learners.

That being said, how could I provide experiential learning when I was not a science or technology teacher and the students lacked interest and knowledge in the content on which they would be tested?

I found I needed to forget the idea of covering the subject matter and simply work at providing learning experiences that piqued the most interest and student camaraderie. Projects that used television broadcasts, the Internet, newspapers, the public library and other elements of their current environment worked best. E-mail and instant messaging did more to foster active reading, writing and communication skills than most assignments. An interactive computer-based program in reading and math led to individual skill building.

A Life Preserver
Whatever the approach, the problem of adequate academic preparation certainly continues to exist. Frustration marks any attempt to meet state and federal testing standards on the part of students, teachers and school districts. At-risk students see no immediate or future purpose in the testing. In their minds the tests are for preppies and teachers. They don't believe the results will affect them so they either refuse to take the tests or refuse to take them seriously.

For their teachers, the task of convincing these students that the legislated school curriculum and testing have meaning and importance for them borders on the impossible. And in that setting, the accelerated teaching and learning needed to meet the standards has been unreachable. The result, then, is that the school districts that support the charter school fail to get the test results that would help them justify their expenditure. Expectations must be changed.

In working with these at-risk students, I am more aware than ever that no matter what standards and testing we legislate, we cannot fill the void in their knowledge base. We can’t “standardize” them and test them into getting an education. The circumstances that created the void still exist.

What we can do is give these students an educational experience that is positive and supportive. We can work to meet their immediate needs and model both the method and the value of setting goals for the future. By doing so, many of these students will, like me, learn a new way of looking at their situations. They will learn the value of personal application.

In a world gone test-mad, alternative charter schools can offer a life preserver to society’s supposed failures. Their failings are exacerbated by schools that cannot or do not provide alternatives. Through the charter school, the school districts of Juneau County are trying cooperatively to meet the challenge. And so is the “Old Doc” they hired to be part of it.

Larry “Doc” Ballwahn, who retired after 10 years as a superintendent, teaches at the Juneau County Charter School, an alternative program for students at risk of failure. He can be reached at 718 Arrowhead Blvd., Wilton, WI 54670. E-mail: