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September 1994 | Volume 52 | Number 1
The New Alternative Schools
Stephen M. Davis
Georgia educators find unruly teens responsive to a nonpunitive, therapeutic alternative to out-of-school suspension.
Bruce was a 15-year-old middle school student in trouble again.1
His background included family problems, a history of poor academic performance and school suspensions, untreated attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, and brushes with the juvenile court. Now, once again suspended for rebellious behavior, Bruce was given an alternative: the Gateway Program. Would this new therapeutic approach, designed to bridge the gap between the troubled student and his school, work?
In the Dalton City and Whitfield County, Georgia, public school systems, educators were concerned that suspending students from school interfered with students' educational opportunities and exposed them to more problems. The two school systems decided to create a disciplinary alternative that would also promote learning objectives.
During the summer of 1992, a small building on the campus of North Whitfield Middle School was renovated to house a new program. Leanne Edmond and I, certified special education teachers and professional counselors, were assigned to initiate the program. A secretary/paraprofessional, Mara Cobble, later joined us. Using advice and expertise from both school systems, we had to develop from scratch everything from philosophy to forms to procedures.
Because we believed that many antisocial behaviors were symptoms of underlying social/emotional conflicts, we chose a therapeutic approach. From this focus came the program's design, including academic study as well as daily group counseling, individual counseling, writing in a personal journal, and a system for earning privileges. The Gateway Program emphasizes academics, but our work with the students' emotional conflicts and behaviors takes priority. The name “Gateway Program” illustrates the project's purpose as a therapeutic threshold through which students may pass to future success.
Students, from 11-year-olds through high school seniors, come from 10 public schools. Gateway's maximum daily enrollment is 30 students. Offenses leading to the students' placement with us usually involve weapons, verbal or physical assault on peers or faculty members, drugs, alcohol, theft, blatant disrespect or rebelliousness, or an accumulation of rule violations.
A system-level evidentiary or tribunal committee, independent of the student's current school and the Gateway Program, makes the decision to place a student in the program. This quasi-judicial committee helps protect a student's right to due process. The four-or-five member committee is a mix of school administrators, school psychologists, and counselors who meet on an as-needed basis and whose compostion may change from one student's hearing to another. Any case of an alleged violation that could result in a student suspension of 10 or more days must be presented before this committee. The school presents its evidence, and students have the opportunity to defend themselves. If the student is found guilty, he or she may be sent to Gateway for 11 days to one semester as an alternative disciplinary option to out-of-school suspension.
During the 1992–93 school year, there were 85 referrals, with resulting placements of 73 students. Several individuals completed two placements. At the time of placement, almost 52 percent of the students were involved in juvenile court proceedings or on probation, and 24 percent were special education students working under an Individual Educational Plan. For the 1993–94 school year, referrals rose to 93. A few students choose to drop out of school rather than enroll at Gateway. If those students decide to return to school, they must first complete their assigned time in the Gateway Program. The surrounding school systems do not accept for enrollment any student suspended from either school system participating in Gateway.
Although feedback has been favorable, it is still too early in the project to compile reliable, long-term success data.
From the onset, counseling has been a priority of the Gateway Program. Group counseling consists of discussions of topics suggested by the staff counselors and the students. Group sessions often become intense and productive; at other times they serve to build relationships and rapport. Attendance is required, but active participation is not. Disruptions and nonparticipation are rare.
A student can request an individual counseling session with a staff member at any time, and, likewise, a staff member may suggest a session with any student. The building has three private rooms for counseling, crisis intervention, or “time for self.” Debriefing among all staff occurs daily. This routine helps to ensure the quality of the interventions.
Students write in their personal journals daily. For students not inclined toward self-disclosure, the journal often provides a catalyst for expression. Many students use the journal to discuss problems or concerns, while others write simple statements about their day. A staff member reads the journals daily with the students' knowledge and may respond to the material. Confidentiality is maintained.
Earning privileges helps to motivate students to follow rules and practice behaviors that will keep them out of trouble. The privilege system also provides a way for students to earn a less restrictive routine. A student can earn one point each hour for each rule followed during that period. The rules are:
Level 1 is the entry level and has no privileges. These students sit in their built-in study booths all day, including lunch, except for restroom breaks and group counseling. After two to three weeks, a student usually earns enough points (300) to move to Level 2. Level 2 students follow much the same routine but may work on cooperative learning activities and may bring completed work to the teacher. After four to six weeks in the program, students usually achieve Level 3 (600 points). At this level, the student may move to a regular student desk, may assist with distributing lunches, and may occasionally take a short break outside under direct supervision.
The two participating school systems handle transportation differently. The larger system transports students to a few centrally located schools. Then a designated bus picks up only Gateway students and delivers them to the program. The geographically smaller system picks up students at their homes and transports them on a special bus to the program, returning them to their homes after school.
The neighboring middle school's cafeteria prepares the lunches—the same menu as the school's regular lunch. A Gateway staff member picks up the boxed lunches and brings them to our building.
The procedure that causes the most misunderstanding between the program and the schools involves academic assignments. Teachers from the students' referring schools forward assignments to them at Gateway. Understandably, some teachers express frustration about this extra responsibility and demand on their time—time spent on students who often have already been disruptive and disrespectful in class. Or, if the student was placed at Gateway at the beginning of the grading period, then he or she may never have been physically present in the teacher's class. A teacher's frustration is compounded by delays in getting assignments to the program and receiving completed work back. With some schools, the system's inter-school courier network is used to deliver assignments and return finished work. Other schools shuttle assignments on the bus that transports their students to and from the program.
Some teachers have expressed concern over the quantity or quality of completed work. Many of the students have poor motivation and do not attempt more than the minimum requirements. The sheer volume of student assignments makes staff oversights and mistakes more likely. Most students have at least six courses. That means that if there are 25 students in attendance, then each day has the potential of requiring the supervision of 150 different assignments in all content areas from 150 different teachers from 10 schools from 5th through 12th grades!
Another challenge is dealing with those who believe that Gateway should be strictly punitive. These students are already being punished in many ways. They are segregated from peers, and they are prohibited from attending public school functions. Other punitive disciplinary measures have not benefited these particular students. Shouldn't something different be tried?
If these students are not disrupting the program and are at least trying to modify their behavior, then keeping them “off the streets” and in counseling may be as important as academic achievement. Gateway does, however, have the option of referring a student back to his or her evidentiary or tribunal committee for reconsideration of Gateway placement if he or she is not working or progressing. More active communication with parents and post-program follow-up are needed. However, the limits of time and staff make this difficult.
Assignment of students to the program by an impartial committee independent of the referring school and our program is beneficial and reduces potential conflicts. This procedure helps to prevent simply “dumping” troublesome students into the program and the schools' ridding themselves of responsibility. This also keeps Gateway from being perceived as choosing only particular students with whom to work.
Our program's philosophy, mission, and procedures are articulated both to system- and school-level leadership and teachers. Gateway has been highlighted at board of education, leadership team, and regular faculty meetings.
Active, supportive linkages with various community agencies prove to be mutually beneficial. For example, the Juvenile Court and court services workers support our efforts with the students.
Each referring school with an enrolled student at Gateway sends an administrator, counselor, or teacher to visit its student regularly. Students often mistakenly believe that their schools have given up on them; these visits demonstrate otherwise.
Staff members at Gateway recognize the worth of one another's varied skills. The team approach results in constant collaboration and also eases the stress of working in this emotionally charged program.
Remember Bruce? On his first day at the Gateway Program, Bruce's behavior was hostile, threatening, and demanding. Despite the staff's supportive efforts, his anger escalated to the point where law enforcement intervention became necessary. Bruce was led from the program in handcuffs, his probation was revoked, and he was incarcerated for seven days at the Regional Youth Development Center.
When Bruce returned, he was more cooperative, but the expression of his underlying anger persisted. Staff members patiently worked through various crises with Bruce. After 22 days, he made substantial progress in counseling and returned to his school. During the next weeks, with sensitive support from his public school's teachers, he maintained appropriate behavior and even competed successfully as a member of an athletic team. When the wrestling season was over, however, Bruce regressed and was placed back at Gateway.
During his second enrollment, he had a fight with a family member and was placed in a group home. He contacted every available member of his family, including a noncustodial parent, pleading to be taken in. His family would not help him. He expressed the feeling that all he had left was Gateway. Bruce finally realized the seriousness of his past behaviors and their consequences. Instead of giving up, however, Bruce began to take positive control of his actions. He improved his physical appearance to the point that a former teacher failed to recognize him. On the last day in the program, this “tough kid” who first left in handcuffs now left with hugs and tears. Bruce had created his own success story.
With serious discipline problems on the rise in schools, educators are facing tough challenges. The Gateway Program is striving to provide a therapeutic alternative to current measures being used to intervene with disruptive students. It is but one response to the troubled child.
The name is a pseudonym.
The name is a pseudonym.
Stephen M. Davis is the Director of the Gateway Program, 3264-A Cleveland Highway, Dalton, GA 30721.
Copyright © 1994 by
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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