Opinion

The secret of alternative education: Enough time - Island Forum

By Steve Simpson

Those of us teaching in alternative schools experience a different kind of education from mainstream teachers. We get learning disabled students, kids with drug problems, the disaffected and disruptive. We also get something else. We get the staffing levels we need to deal with these difficult teaching problems.

I believe getting enough time to deal with our students is the most important difference between most traditional programs and most successful alternative programs.

Alternative programs and alternative teachers meet the needs of students who may be unable to find success in a traditional program. Alternative programs frequently have a passion, curriculum and alternative methodology not found in many traditional programs. However, I believe that the key to the success of so many alternative programs lies not in their alternative curriculum or methodology, but rather in alternative staffing levels.

I taught mainstream language arts classes for nine years. It was pretty much what most teachers deal with in traditional programs. We averaged 25-30 kids in a class, more or less. We taught five periods and had one period as prep. Like most teachers, I was able to deliver a reasonably successful program and my students moved along their academic highways with additional skills and a few new ideas to keep their brains busy.

The bad news was that I did not really serve the needs of about 10 percent of my kids. I tried, but I just did not have time. If the average period is 50 minutes long, and I had 25 kids in class, I had the luxury of spending two minutes per kid per period. We all know that old, sad story.

But that old, sad story is the key difference between so many successful alternative programs and so may unsuccessful traditional programs. Time. The most important alternative characteristic is time. That means staffing. And that means money.

I teach in an alternative program where our student-teacher ratio is about 1:10 during an average academic period. This means we have four teachers working with 40 kids. If a kid needs individual attention, academic or personal, we simply pull a teacher out of the group and put that teacher one-on-one with the needy student.

If one methodology does not work for a student, we redesign the lesson and teach it to that student in a different way. We can do that because we have time to do that. We don't have 24 other students waiting for our attention while we sit with one student and teach a different version of the lesson.

I have a favorite line I enjoy plugging into any possible conversational hole: ``You give me any random selection of high school teachers and we will solve that problem.''

I believe that with a passion that I still find kind of weird. But I do believe it. I have lived too long in the trenches, seen too many remarkable teachers, to believe otherwise. And I guess that is the point.

Alternative programs are great. I work in one and love it. But what I really love is not the alternative methodology we sometimes implement. I love having the time to work with kids who need time with a teacher. I love the luxury of spending most of my time with the kids who most need my time.

I believe that if you give all teachers the same luxury, the same 1:10 staffing level, they will be able to meet the needs of all of their students. They, too, will develop alternative methodologies as needed when an individual student needs individualized instruction.

They will sit and talk with individual kids more and stand in front of large groups of kids less. They will make sure that every student gets a version of education that empowers them and educates them.

Money does that. It buys time for teachers to teach. It turns every education program into an alternative program.

Steve Simpson teaches at Crest Learning Center, Mercer Island High School's alternative school. Simpson publishes a weekly online education newsletter, Ed.Net www.edbriefs.com . Write him at simpson@edbriefs.com

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