“The bottom line is, the students I work with wouldn’t be in school at all if their only option was a traditional school,” Wallingford Alternative High School teacher Vicki Gustavson told educators at a recent CEA workshop on alternative and adult education programs.
Gustavson was one of the five alternative educators and CEA members on a panel who told their colleagues that alternative schools can be a saving grace for many students. Alternative schools that students can choose to go to, rather than schools where students are placed without consent, give students a crucial opportunity to finish high school when they are not successful in a traditional school environment.
Laura McCargar, the author of the report Invisible Students, who also presented at the workshop, said, “The reality is, different kids need different experiences in school.”
In addition to Gustavson, panel members included Robert Melillo, Alternative Center for Excellence, Danbury; Rick Rumsey, Putnam Alternative Learning System; Bill Scalise, president of the Connecticut Association of Alternative Schools and Programs; and Steven Craig, Alternate Learning Center, Killingly. These alternative educators have all dedicated their careers to doing as much as they can to help sometimes overlooked students through high school and on to graduation.
Gustavson said that the three teachers and 30 students in the Wallingford program are “like a family.” She described working with her students as “one of the most joyous jobs ever.”
Some students get lost in the shuffle of a traditional school with larger class sizes and hundreds or thousands of students in one building, said Gustavson. “Our kids truly appreciate the smaller, family atmosphere. We don’t have discipline problems 99 percent of the time because they’re much happier at the alternative school—they choose to go there,” she said.
Gustavson said her school has the same academic rigor of the regular high school and requires all of the same courses for graduation. The atmosphere is very different though, and the teachers have to be flexible with how they accomplish required course work.
“All of the teachers are multi-certified,” said Gustavson. “I teach math and English for grades 10 through 12. We individualize programs in different ways to accommodate students’ needs.”
Even in a larger program like Danbury’s, Melillo said, “We each wear multiple hats. There are times during the day when I take off my social studies hat and put on a social worker hat.”
“Sometimes the students don’t need someone with a counseling degree as much as they just need someone to listen and offer parental advice,” Melillo said.
The flexibility of an alternative program can be the key to getting a student to graduation, Melillo said.
Scalise said, “We’re not trying to fix these kids. For most of the students, we’re not getting them back to the high school—they really need a different environment to succeed.”
If you teach at an alternative school or program, the Connecticut Association of Alternative Schools and Programs offers resources and meetings for alternative educators. Find out more at their website, caasp.org.