Designing Effective Systems to Support an Alternative High School
A principal shares his insights into the systems that make an alternative high school run smoothly for all students.
Our grade 9–12 alternative school is successful in no small part because it accepts a wide range of students. We are not solely a credit recovery program, nor do we take only students who would have otherwise been expelled from school. We welcome students from a special education background, who have attendance and behavioral issues, who need to add space to their schedules, who have credit deficiency, who are teen parents, who have a background of trauma, or who have a need or motivation to graduate early.
This mix of students contributes to our strength. It raises the bar for all, helps students develop empathy, and dilutes the off-task and disruptive behaviors of previously recalcitrant students.
We’ve developed effective systems to make our school successful. I use the word systems to describe the network, policies, procedures, human capital, expectations, and support that facilitate a student’s success. Different students will need varying levels of support, but all will need some level of support. Here are the strategies we’ve used to make our school run successfully.
Team: Our staff (teachers, aides, admin, secretary, and social worker) meet every Monday to talk about our students. It is important that these meetings not turn into complaint sessions. We already know what the kid is doing wrong. The goal is for us to help them to do better by removing obstacles.
Daily structure and schedule: Students need a level of predictability, and this is even more important for students who have suffered trauma. Expectations need to be understood by all concerned and can be illustrated by the answers to these questions: What do students do when they get off the bus? How do we provide lunch for all-day students? When can students use the restroom? How are staff supposed to handle an aggressive student? How do students access help from the social worker? Are parents supposed to call the home school or the alternative school if their student will be absent?
Welcoming New Students
Onboarding, not intakes: When new students arrive, we lead them through an onboarding process. We use the language onboarding intentionally: Intakes happen at jails, prisons, and hospitals, but onboarding takes place when someone starts a job or career. During this 30-to-60-minute time, an administrator or social worker meets with a new student and their parents and begins the relationship-building process.
Our goal is to learn about the student’s strengths, interests, aspirations, and areas of struggle. It is also the time to welcome the student and parent to the program and to set goals and expectations. This is the time to describe what the program is and is not.
Behavioral issues: We discuss why the student is attending the program, but we don’t harp on it. Some students come to us with a history of behavioral issues, which we address in an almost-nonchalant manner. We have had success using the phrasing, “We understand what you did, but you are more mature now. We know what you did, and we simply do not do that here. We very much hope you do not do that stuff here because we want you to stay in our program.”
Systems at home: During the onboarding, I ask each parent and student questions like these: What time do you fall asleep each night, and is your cell phone shut off and out of your room when you are going to sleep? Do you eat breakfast? Do you have a regular time for homework every night? Do you have your own alarm clock? Do you have chores at home that you perform regularly without being asked? Encouraging these procedures and routines at home increases chances for school success significantly.
Supporting Students Once They’ve Arrived
Texting with parents and students: I share my school (not personal) cell phone number with parents. We live in a texting society where phone calls and emails are becoming more rare. The ability to exchange texts with parents has been very important at our school. It is not unusual for students to have my cell phone number as well. This has helped build relationships and has served as something of a security blanket for some students. Student cell phone numbers are required on our application and come in handy tracking down kids and checking in on them.
Home visits: Home visits are conducted when students are not doing well in our program. Poor attendance, lack of academic progress, behavioral problems, and the inability to get telephone calls returned by parents could all trigger a home visit. A visit from the principal or teacher demonstrates the importance of a given situation. When this visit is combined with a plan for success, and not just for negative consequences, it can be very powerful. Sometimes the child does not want you at their home, so compliance at school can help keep you away. Most often, however, it demonstrates kindness and empathy. It also can provide an enlightening glimpse into a person’s home life.
We try to be present in other aspects of the student’s life. Attendance at sporting events and even family funerals helps build relationships. Visiting students when they are in juvenile detention can make a world of difference when they return to school.
Creating community connections: Close relationships and internships with key employers can greatly facilitate our teenagers’ getting hired for entry-level or advanced jobs.
Sustaining Support for the School
We are fortunate to have great support from the superintendent and the school board. Alternative schools can ensure consistent support from the district by sharing good news and student success stories. This helps to justify the expense of the program. An advisory board of committed community members can be invaluable for attaining feedback, gaining support for initiatives, and helping with public relations.
The success of an alternative school is directly related to effective policies, procedures, and methods, followed and accepted by all stakeholders. Systems lay the foundation for the remaining framework of relationship, hope, advocacy, agency, capacity, and mitigation to be built and utilized.