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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Place in the Choir

A Place in the Choir

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

All God’s creatures have a place in the choir; some sing low, some sing higher. Some sing out loud in the telephone wire …
-- Children’s song lyrics, by Bill Staines

I often envision these famous lyrics when speaking to school leaders about their Alternative Schools.  Diversity of circumstance epitomizes their students, the children and young adults who in many cases have sad songs to sing.

With all of the flavors of at-risk-ness that alternative educators encounter, yet with such similarities in the typical mosaic that confronts each alternative school as a whole, I am intrigued by the dichotomies of philosophy that exist regarding the care and feeding of such students.  The differences are sometimes stark.

I teach doctoral students.  As my new cohort begins to formulate dissertation topics, I would like to suggest Leadership for At-Risk Students as a viable topic. For many years, alternative schools have made attempts to serve as the last bastion of a civilized society for some very troubled children.  They have purportedly fulfilled their missions based on best practice and what they believe their community expects.  Yet, how are they doing?  How are their leaders leading?  What is going on that makes a difference, and what does not?

I wonder what research would say?

At the Washington Hilton Hotel about a decade ago, I sat with a national delegation that included our State Superintendent, Governor’s Education Advisor, and select K-12 leaders representing our state among delegations from the forty-nine others.  At this gathering, the American Alternative School was declared a failed concept (Whitehurst, 2003).  Ouch.

As a leader who had one such school under my supervision, I took offense to these remarks. 

Yet, in the years that followed as I worked in statewide high school reform, I began to understand this bureaucrat’s perspective (though not totally embracing any blanket statements), as many alternative educators provided resistance to the reforms that we were championing in order to raise rigor, relevance, and relationships in schools. 

Rigor was the tough sell. Some actively worked against it with the mantras, “Our kids just don’t test well,” and “We shouldn’t be expected to be held to academic standards, as our kids just aren’t academic.”

Too many alternative schools, it seemed at the time, wanted a pillow-soft existence with insulated academic accountability. Maybe this has now changed.

I ask superintendents, “Are your alternative school leaders really promoting lifelong success for students?” and “Do they embrace rigor?”

The answers are interesting, as when school leaders describe what their programs do each day, the descriptions often lean more toward one dichotomous archetype of delivery system or another. These archetypes are what communities envision as the “alternative” in alternative education, yet as I mentioned above, even with the diversity of circumstance among their students, kids really aren’t that different.  They oftentimes come from the same cocktailed malaise of juvenile delinquency, neglect, overindulgence, pregnancy, disaffection, abuse, violence, sadness, confusion, and/or abject awfulness that we would not wish on any kid.  Yet, the mosaic is similar, it seems, no matter where we go.

Programs in different communities seem to treat these same batches of symptoms differently.  This is interesting to me.  Let’s take a look at what experience has shown to describe different communities’ programs and the dichotomies that exist in delivery philosophy.

The Dichotomies

DICHOTOMY OF IDENTITY:  Some alternative programs allow children to come to school and simply “be themselves.” In the spirit of connecting and meeting students where they are, they allow children to wear what they want, do what they want (sometimes even smoke on street corners or in non-sanctioned “wink/wink” smoking areas), and communicate what they want (even write in slang language in the classroom or on their assignments).  The intent is to connect with the individual who is struggling to be heard. Conversely, other programs require that students perform an identity check, or better said make an identity adjustment, while attending school.  They require students to don uniforms, study professional etiquette, and adhere to strict behavioral expectations with appropriate incentives or disincentives.  They expect kids to act very much “unlike” themselves so that they can overcome, overemphasizing a collectivistic responsibility, as opposed to an individualistic mentality.

DICHOTOMY OF SERVICE:  Some alternative programs provide excessive visibility of services tailored to the needs of at-risk teens, such as the childcare for infants and toddlers or “group” sessions for the handling of relationship issues or for the intervention and treatment of this, that, or the other thing. The philosophy behind these approaches often rests upon the fact the visibility of these programs will serve the functions of advertisement and availability for those who need the help. Other programs work overtime to minimize the visibility of anything that would identify “circumstance.”  Childcare services are offered off-site, as one example, and intervention services are provided more individually and confidentially. Excessive public broadcasting, they feel, would intrigue those not involved into wishing they were a part of all this attention.

DICHOTOMY OF PREPARATION:  Some alternative programs proclaim that most alternative students will not avail themselves of college and instead find job training more appropriate to their interests, aptitudes, or abilities.  They contend that forcing non-academic students into an overly academic program is probably what caused them to drop from traditional schools in the first place. Other programs promote an unapologetic, no-excuses academic education geared toward continued coursework beyond high school, as they feel that whether students are on an academic or a job training path, preparation for higher education will allow students who never realized they had the potential for both, to better understand that they are empowered to tackle either.

DICHOTOMY OF THE INTERVENTION:  Some alternative programs provide rooms where students can go during the school day in the event that they have issues that interfere with their ability to handle academics or the classroom experience.  In what in some cases are called “chill rooms,” intervention programs and conflict resolution specialists stand ready to provide conversational remedies to help students with their emotional needs, so that they can better re-engage academically when they are ready to do so. Other programs believe that those out-of-class experiences have a tendency to sidetrack students from necessary, academic instruction and even enable those who wish to avoid hard work, so they focus more of their efforts on in-class differentiation and supports to minimize the need for extended stays out of the classroom.  The more affective services are provided during non-instructional time.

DICHOTOMY OF PERSONNEL:  Some alternative programs hire staff members who have a natural ability to be “in touch” with the students enrolled, as these employees are liberal in perspective and progressive in their demeanor and outlook.  They report that students often make quick connections with them as they are seen as hip and in-tune with student needs.   Other programs believe that children in alternative schools are already surrounded by overly permissive adults in their lives who are too interested in playing friends with the younger generation, so they work to counterbalance this with more conservative staff members who are anything but “hip” and serve more as strict, paternal influences than they do as big brothers or sisters.

DICHOTOMY OF PARENTAL PARTNERSHIP:  Some alternative programs consider themselves the last bastion of a civilized society, with adult missionaries who rescue children from the negative influences of family and even the deleterious influence of their own parents.  They educate children “in spite” of what they encounter at home and work to supplant the adult influence in the children’s lives.  Other programs believe that even the most dysfunctional parents are hypercritical as partners and feel that their efforts would be “undone” each evening by those at home if the family was not “on board,” so they work toward involving the entire family in the education of the child, serving as a supplement to the family unit, no matter how effortful or resource-dependent this extended relationship becomes.

DICHOTOMY OF SUPERVISION:  Some programs are supported in supervision by police officers or security guards to ensure the safety of students and staff while in attendance.  These efforts are often coupled with a procedure for greeting students at the door each morning, at times involving the use of wands or metal detectors to screen students upon arrival. Strict monitoring of hallways takes place during class and in passing times.  Other programs believe in a more subtle approach that does not require the use of uniformed, extrinsic controls on student behavior, but instead focuses more on a whole-school culture approach to intrinsic violence prevention and civil co-existence. Hallway traffic and passing times are not handled so didactically.

So …

Back to my wheelhouse of metaphor:  With Bill Staines' lyrics in mind – If all God’s creatures have a place in the choir with some singing low and some singing higher, then what type of setting best works for the mosaic we serve?  At-risk children are diverse, indeed, but are they so different from one another that such a dichotomy is needed?

On our end, we’ll check the research and will get back with you in future months about what it says.  Until then, enjoy your conversations with trusted colleagues regarding some great kids who need our help. 

Can we ask ourselves, “Why?” when discussing “What” and “How”?


Dr. Ryan Donlan spent a good portion of his 20 years in K-12 education working with at-risk high school students and is interested in further research on alternative education as part of his scholarship areas of School Wellness, School Reimagination, and Leadership Development.  Like you, he was somewhere on one side or the other of this dichotomy (and even at times in the middle) as a leader.  Please feel free to continue the conversation with him at (812) 237-8624 or at

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