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Arkansas Spurns Warehousing of Floundering Students


When her mother and educators enrolled her in a public alternative school in Bentonville, Arkansas, they were opening doors for ... who graduates this month with A's and B's and wants to become a real estate agent. "You go around the corner and there's ...


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(Truthout is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit) Arkansas Spurns Warehousing of Floundering Students Wednesday, December 27, 2017 By Heather Vogell, ProPublica | Report font size decrease font size increase font size Print Tweet !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src=p+'://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs'); (function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "//connect.facebook.net/en_US/sdk.js#xfbml=1&version=v2.5&appId=182229751877919"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk')); (function() { var po = document.createElement('script'); po.type = 'text/javascript'; po.async = true; po.src = 'https://apis.google.com/js/platform.js'; var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(po, s); })(); (Photo: Pixabay) As Leana Torres began high school, family crises -- her estrangement from her father, her stepmother's terminal cancer -- shadowed her through the hallwaysShe experimented with drugs and got C's, D's and F's in class. Torres could have become a casualty of her difficult home life -- the sort of student school districts may all but write off because circumstances outside the classroom seem to overwhelm teachers' best effortsBut she didn'tWhen her mother and educators enrolled her in a public alternative school in Bentonville, Arkansas, they were opening doors for her, not shutting them. "My mom actually sent me here as a punishment," says Torres, who has long dark hair and big brown eyes, "but it's actually the best thing that's happened to me." At the Gateway Alternative School, Torres found a close-knit community where she could catch up on coursework and lean on adults and other students who understood what it was like to encounter major obstacles as a teenager. "It's kind of like a big support system," says Torres, 17, who graduates this month with A's and B's and wants to become a real estate agent"You go around the corner and there's somebody to help you." Torres' success is no flukeIt's exactly the sort of life-changing turnaround that officials in Bentonville, and the state of Arkansas, expect from their alternative schools for at-risk students. In other states, such schools are often spare and prison-like, offer computer-based courses instead of meaningful interaction with teachers, and provide little counselingMany students are subjected to harsh discipline and, some allege, even physical abuse. But in Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the country, educators have taken another pathThe state government has encouraged -- and helped pay for -- a network of local alternative schools with rich academic offerings, social and mental health support, and standards modeled on what research shows works best to reduce bad behavior, poor grades and absenteeism. Arkansas allocates an extra $4,600 for each alternative school student -- on top of the standard state and local expenditure of $6,700 per pupilFor alternative schools to receive the extra stipend, classes can have no greater than a 1:15 teacher-student ratio (and many are smaller)Even students in small schools often can choose from electives and career-vocational classes and participate in clubs and sportsMental health counseling is generally available. It's difficult to calculate a graduation rate for the state's alternative schools, because they're mostly grouped for statistical purposes with regular schools, to which nearly a quarter of their students returnStill, their emergence coincided with a decline in Arkansas' overall dropout rate from 2002 to 2012, a November state report showsAnother indicator of their success: although traditional schools are encouraged to recommend only about 3 percent of their students for alternative schools, nearly 10 percent of all graduates in the state have spent some time in alternative education. Some states' approach to alternative education is to "take the least and give them less," says state Alternative Education Director Lori Lamb"We don't do that in Arkansas." One of the state's main goals, she adds, is to erase the stigma of attending alternative schools, and change perceptions so students -- and taxpayers -- see them as an intervention, not punishment. Denise Riley, an Oklahoma-based education consultant on the board of the National Alternative Education Association, says Arkansas has become a leader in alternative education by constantly evaluating itself and incorporating new research into its practices, providing strong but supportive oversight of school districts, and fostering programs where adults build solid relationships with students. "They've approached it almost like you would if you taught a gifted class," Riley says. In certain ways, Arkansas' philosophy runs counter to the Trump administration'sThe state urges districts to keep alternative schools' population "substantially similar" to that of regular schools -- a goal that aligned with federal guidance under former President Barack ObamaYet under U.SEducation Secretary Betsy DeVos, federal officials are proposing to delay a rule that would discourage schools from over-identifying minority students for special education and segregating them in separate classrooms, or disciplining them disproportionately. DeVos also favors expanding the roles of charter schools and for-profit education management companies to promote school choice, which she has suggested can lower absenteeism and dropout ratesThough for-profit charter schools specializing in "dropout recovery" abound elsewhere, Lamb says only one charter school chain, a nonprofit, has met Arkansas' rigorous standards to qualify for alternative education funding. In a sense, Arkansas has taken alternative schools back to their roots as child-centered, less competitive and more flexible places for students who struggle to thrive in regular schoolsThat mission was subverted as schools across the country adopted rigid, "zero-tolerance" disciplinary practices in the 1990s and then faced pressure to boost test scores as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001Neglected and underfunded, many alternative schools now offer substandard academics in decrepit buildings or trailers, and serve mainly as warehouses for students with behavior problems or bad test scoresIncreasingly, they're run by private companies that profit by providing bare-bones instruction and billing states for potential dropouts who rarely show up for class. A ProPublica investigation this year found that nationwide, nearly a third of the alternative-school population attends a school that spends at least $500 less per pupil than regular schools do in the same districtFour in 10 school districts don't provide counseling in their alternative schools, though they do in regular schoolsStates often hold alternative schools to lower standards than regular ones, too -- sometimes providing students far fewer hours of teaching than their counterparts in regular schools. In some states, students are largely forced into alternative schools, even for minor behavioral offenses like cursing or disrespectAnd while just 6 percent of regular schools across the country have graduation rates below 50 percent, ProPublica's analysis found nearly half of alternative schools do. Arkansas' strikingly different approach dates back to 2002, when lawmakers expanded the state's alternative schools in response to a state Supreme Court decision that declared the state's education system inequitable and inadequateThe reforms mandated that every school district have an alternative program available for its neediest students. Arkansas alternative students must meet two of a dozen criteria, which include having been an abuse victim, received inadequate emotional support at home, exhibited disruptive behavior, or repeatedly failed to achieve proficiency in math and literacyPoor academic performance is not reason enoughStudents are referred to the program by educators or parents, and enrollment is mostly voluntary. Unlike in many districts elsewhere, Arkansas discourages traditional schools from gaming accountability measures by pushing out poor performers to alternative schoolsInstead, students' test scores and graduation status in alternative programs are usually reported as part of their home school's performanceWhen they graduate, most students receive a diploma from the regular school. Under state guidelines, the alternative schools must not be punitiveAcademic failures and even disciplinary incidents typically elicit more help -- not suspension or expulsionSchools must offer services -- such as access to a school counselor, mental health professional or school nurse -- that, at a minimum, are similar to what is available for students in regular schools. To be sure, the state's alternative programs aren't perfectSome have waiting lists and small or aging facilities, leaving them unable to help as many students as they'd likeOthers, like those elsewhere in the country, struggle with student absenteeism. The state has continued to monitor its alternative schools closely and refine its approach"I always say students don't have to meet the program's needs," Lamb says"The program needs to change to meet their needs." *** The state's approach is visible in school hallwaysAt four alternative schools I visited in early December, chatter -- not forced silence, or chaos -- filled the hallways between periods, with students socializing briefly before disappearing into classroomsIn some, student artwork or photos of teens taking part in special events or projects adorned the walls. At Gateway Alternative School in Bentonville -- headquarters to retailing giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., where Torres works after school in customer service -- students learn business concepts in one course by running a bike repair shop. They fix bikes mainly for the district's physical education classes and a smattering of paying customers. At tables in the nearby cafeteria one Tuesday this month, students talked, worked on laptops, or readIt was a "seminar day," when time was set aside for students who needed extra help so they could be tutored by teachers in small groupsThose in the cafeteria were caught up, and had earned a few minutes to socialize as a rewardThe program is one of the school's ways to individualize instruction, instead of relying on generic computer courses. Program Coordinator Kale Eaton said 11 of his 12 teachers have masters' degrees, and turnover is lowThe school experiences few disciplinary issues, he says -- even with students who arrive with reputations for misbehavior"It's a fresh start and we treat it like a fresh start with them," he said. About a half-hour drive from Bentonville is the Archer Learning Center, located in a refurbished furniture store in SpringdalePrincipal Shawna Lyons and Assistant Principal Coby Davis, who both have doctorates in education, use a host of strategies to ease the transition for newcomersThey include a welcome meeting in which the student, parents and school staff sit in a circle and talk. The school is dedicated, too, to using alternative options to traditional punishments like expulsions and suspensionsThey include "positive behavior supports" -- rewards, encouragement and changes in the students' environment and routines to reduce challenging behavior -- as well as "restorative justice," in which students discuss and make amends for transgressionsThe school is also trying to incorporate "mindfulness" into its days through yoga and other strategies aimed at soothing the nerves of students who often facing significant challenges outside its walls. Lyons and Davis say the measures are paying off: Incidents of misbehavior referred by school staff for discipline dropped from 285 in 2014-2015, to 38 in 2015-2016 and 35 last school year. Attention to students' overall well-being helps students such as Mariah Lopez, 16, a junior at ArcherLike many of her peers in alternative programs, she had serious anxiety at the larger high school she used to attend"Every single day I'd cry and stay in the bathroom," she recallsShe never raised her hand in class, she says, even when she had a question. At Archer, she feels comfortable speaking up and seeking extra helpTeachers are patient and approachableShe's even grown confident enough to return to her regular school early each morning for a dance class before heading to Archer"They really saved me here," she says. The school also builds in time for training its teachers to help kids who are struggling in class, and offers students regular field trips to colleges and technical schoolsOf 106 fourth and fifth-year seniors eligible for graduation in 2017, Davis says, 94 received diplomas. *** From the outside, the Russellville Secondary Alternative Learning Center looms as a Depression-era monolith with windows that were boarded up long ago, reportedly to save money during the energy crisis. But inside, the school's classrooms have an inviting feelTeachers and administrators have turned the windows into bookcases, decorating them with artwork and knick-knacksPrincipal Josh Edgin, a soft-spoken former basketball and football coach, stands in the school's wide corridor and jokes with staff and students. "It's a family atmosphere," Edgin says"You build these relationships with kids and they don't want to disappoint you." Unlike many alternative programs in other states, the center doesn't offer computer-based "credit recovery" courses for students who failed the first time aroundAll instruction is provided by teachers, and students who need to catch up can attend extra classes after school"Students need it," Edgin says of teachers' attention, "they need that interaction." A computer, he adds, can't see frustration. It also can't see when students are barely able to stay awake -- because they worked late, or had issues at homeBut Edgin and his teachers can, and, instead of chastising those who fall asleep in class, they invite them to put their head down on a desk for a half-hour in a quiet room"We're not going to ruin a school day over a nap," Edgin says. All the personal attention at the center tends to erase discipline problems, Edgin saysStudent David Tisby, 17, says he was so confused in classes such as math at his regular high school that he often left questions on classwork blankHe also amassed a disciplinary record for acting up in class, according to Edgin. But at the center, Tisby says teachers helped him when he needed it and made sure he caught upThe school uses a nine-week semester that allows students to accumulate an extra credit(Twenty-two credits are required for a high school degree.) "I like it better," Tisby says, adding he has "perfect attendance" nowHe should finish his graduation requirements by March, and plans to walk with his peers in MayEdgin says Tisby doesn't cause the sort of disruptions that landed him in trouble before, either"He's happy," the principal says, a "big-smile kid." *** Some of the alternative schools in other states that I reported on this year offered hardly any elective classes or career-vocational programs, which many students were interested inBut in a high-poverty neighborhood on the outskirts of Little Rock, students at the alternative school North Little Rock Academy can choose electives such as art, music, psychology and television productionThey can take a bus, too, to attend career-tech programs in subjects such as accounting and marketingThe school -- housed in a spacious former middle school -- has a garden and a hothouse out back. On a recent afternoon, Principal Charles Jones walked in to a shop class as it was wrapping upThree students were sitting at a table they had just finished building and singing a gospel song, banging a hammer to keep rhythmIt was one Jones knewHe jumped in, harmonizing with them. "I'm glad about it," they sang, "I'm so glad to be here." Like Edgin, Jones relies heavily on his personal connection to studentsHe grew up in one of the poorer neighborhoods where many of his students come fromHe matches everyone with a mentor at the schoolMany of the teachers' aides he hires are young African-American men who have faced similar challengesThe goal, he says, is to help students address their problems and return to their home school -- or prepare for college. "I tell people there's no such animal as a bad kid," Jones says, just "bad choices, bad neighborhoods, bad influences." This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or licenseIt may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source. Heather Vogell Heather Vogell reports on schools for ProPublicaPreviously, she reported on test cheating in public schools at The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionHer work resulted in indictments of the superintendent and 34 others Related StoriesMaking Higher Education Debt-Free: Creston Davis on Forming the Global Center for Advanced StudiesBy James Crossley, Truthout | InterviewWe Are All Students: The Meaning of "Free Education"By Paddy O'Halloran, Truthout | Op-EdKeeping US Education Segregated Is a Highly Profitable Business for SomeBy Mark Karlin, Truthout | Interview back to top Read more GET DAILY TRUTHOUT UPDATES // Optional Member Code FOLLOW TRUTHOUT Follow @truthout // Latest Stories What #MeToo Can Teach the Labor Movement By Jane McAlevey, In These Times | Op-Ed Five Senate Races to Watch in 2018 By Robin Marty, Care2 | Op-Ed A Radical Vision for Food: Everyone Growing It for Each Other By Peter Kalmus, YES! Magazine | News Analysis Featured Videos As Trump Attacks Media With "Fake News" Claims, a Record 262 Reporters Are Jailed, 46 Killed in 2017 By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! | Video Interview Concerns Raised About $1 Billion Facial Scan Program With High Error Rate at Nine US Airports By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! | Video Interview Buzzflash Headlines As US Budget Fight Looms, Republicans Flip Their Fiscal Script - Reuters Vehicles Are Now the Biggest CO2 Source in the US, but the EPA Is Tearing Up Regulations - the Guardian Minimum Wage Hikes in 18 States Set for New Year - The Hill Arkansas Spurns Warehousing of Floundering Students Wednesday, December 27, 2017 By Heather Vogell, ProPublica | Report font size decrease font size increase font size Print Tweet !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src=p+'://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs'); (function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "//connect.facebook.net/en_US/sdk.js#xfbml=1&version=v2.5&appId=182229751877919"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk')); (function() { var po = document.createElement('script'); po.type = 'text/javascript'; po.async = true; po.src = 'https://apis.google.com/js/platform.js'; var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(po, s); })(); (Photo: Pixabay) As Leana Torres began high school, family crises -- her estrangement from her father, her stepmother's terminal cancer -- shadowed her through the hallwaysShe experimented with drugs and got C's, D's and F's in class. Torres could have become a casualty of her difficult home life -- the sort of student school districts may all but write off because circumstances outside the classroom seem to overwhelm teachers' best effortsBut she didn'tWhen her mother and educators enrolled her in a public alternative school in Bentonville, Arkansas, they were opening doors for her, not shutting them. "My mom actually sent me here as a punishment," says Torres, who has long dark hair and big brown eyes, "but it's actually the best thing that's happened to me." At the Gateway Alternative School, Torres found a close-knit community where she could catch up on coursework and lean on adults and other students who understood what it was like to encounter major obstacles as a teenager. "It's kind of like a big support system," says Torres, 17, who graduates this month with A's and B's and wants to become a real estate agent"You go around the corner and there's somebody to help you." Torres' success is no flukeIt's exactly the sort of life-changing turnaround that officials in Bentonville, and the state of Arkansas, expect from their alternative schools for at-risk students. In other states, such schools are often spare and prison-like, offer computer-based courses instead of meaningful interaction with teachers, and provide little counselingMany students are subjected to harsh discipline and, some allege, even physical abuse. But in Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the country, educators have taken another pathThe state government has encouraged -- and helped pay for -- a network of local alternative schools with rich academic offerings, social and mental health support, and standards modeled on what research shows works best to reduce bad behavior, poor grades and absenteeism. Arkansas allocates an extra $4,600 for each alternative school student -- on top of the standard state and local expenditure of $6,700 per pupilFor alternative schools to receive the extra stipend, classes can have no greater than a 1:15 teacher-student ratio (and many are smaller)Even students in small schools often can choose from electives and career-vocational classes and participate in clubs and sportsMental health counseling is generally available. It's difficult to calculate a graduation rate for the state's alternative schools, because they're mostly grouped for statistical purposes with regular schools, to which nearly a quarter of their students returnStill, their emergence coincided with a decline in Arkansas' overall dropout rate from 2002 to 2012, a November state report showsAnother indicator of their success: although traditional schools are encouraged to recommend only about 3 percent of their students for alternative schools, nearly 10 percent of all graduates in the state have spent some time in alternative education. Some states' approach to alternative education is to "take the least and give them less," says state Alternative Education Director Lori Lamb"We don't do that in Arkansas." One of the state's main goals, she adds, is to erase the stigma of attending alternative schools, and change perceptions so students -- and taxpayers -- see them as an intervention, not punishment. Denise Riley, an Oklahoma-based education consultant on the board of the National Alternative Education Association, says Arkansas has become a leader in alternative education by constantly evaluating itself and incorporating new research into its practices, providing strong but supportive oversight of school districts, and fostering programs where adults build solid relationships with students. "They've approached it almost like you would if you taught a gifted class," Riley says. In certain ways, Arkansas' philosophy runs counter to the Trump administration'sThe state urges districts to keep alternative schools' population "substantially similar" to that of regular schools -- a goal that aligned with federal guidance under former President Barack ObamaYet under U.SEducation Secretary Betsy DeVos, federal officials are proposing to delay a rule that would discourage schools from over-identifying minority students for special education and segregating

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