Philip Summers -
When I was hired for my original position in alt ed. I had absolutely no idea of what it
was: nada, nothing, zip. The original interview was for a standard career education position
so I thought and must admit now wasn’t a position I thought I wanted but was willing to
start anywhere to break in and get paid to teach. I didn’t get the job. I was offered a part
time position running “Evening School” however and I jumped. It never occurred to me that
I would change forever as a person and certainly as an educator.
The lessons are numerous and tested over 30 years of teaching. I’ve had many positions
in diverse roles from second to fifth grade teaching in a standard 400 kid elementary school
to administering and teaching an only boys’ program of 12 adjudicated students grades 8-
12. I’ve worked alone and with teams plus many large buildings although the bulk of my
career was with small environments and site populations.
I don’t want to sound like the old guy telling you where things didn’t used to be but by
far and away the best learning I have been a part of happens in smaller environments
where students and teachers become accountable to each other and the target they seek to
I was so fortunate to stumble into alternative education, possibly divine provenance or
just luck I can’t tell you. Learned all the best lessons of life in those next 24 years. The
flexibility within lessons to explore student inspired content and through interesting
content while also getting to any of “core skills” needed to function in a modern world is
baked into the small system. Classrooms that have enough numbers of students to
promote cooperation while never having so many that class time is wasted on behavior
disruptions; safety for the individual student and the class community environment just
diminishes in large settings micro and macro.
The years in alt ed taught me lessons about life and my purpose in it. I was relatively
free of hierarchical restraint and political nonsense so I could teach students and not
subjects. I’ve not seen this kind of student focused approach in any other environment.
Administration of curriculum has replaced relationships in mainstream education: the
students accommodate the school not the other way around. Essentially, all that is
necessary for learning in a school is a teacher and a student and the institution itself should
serve those two and not its perpetuation.
Most people have no conception of what an alt ed school offers. They have no idea of
the world of innovative and relative education they have to offer. It’s tragically one of the
best kept secrets in American society today. A classic case of not knowing what you don’t
know. I can’t blame folks however, the context of school itself is rooted in the big building,
big population experience nearly all of us go through. It is curious to note though, in
accordance with an old phrase, we have all been through first grade but very few of us can
teach it. People may think they are experts at education in the US today, but they’re
experience in it was very one-sided.
Students, Teachers, and others Comment on Alternative Education Experience
When I first began teaching, I was always looking for ways to reach my students. Whether it was through creative projects, activities, dialog, writing, sharing, play, or whatever popped up – I also worked with others and we created together! I learned from my co-workers, and they may/not have learned from me. The point was the students were learning, they were progressing, we had a wonderful time, and everyone was happy. Then I went into high school education. I also changed states. Then I realized I was in an environment that did not work so well for looking outside the box and reaching the students in ways that spoke to them, but there was an implied script to be followed. Of course, I pushed back on that and discovered some schools did not appreciate anything off-script, while others encouraged it. Then I found Alternative Education. I had some misgivings at first. But it took me no time to begin realizing this was another training ground – one that challenged me to discover methods that were not always at my fingertips, and I was forced to reengage with my peers to best serve the students and their learning. It was challenging work, but in the end the results were amazing. After many years, though, I began to ponder whether others in my position, or the parents, administrators, teachers, students, community members, or whomever, had a change of perspective on Alternative Education from their relationships there. I reached out to people across the country – former students, teachers, administrators, program directors, parents, and others to find out what they had to say. I learned a great deal from these conversations – not only about their stories, but also how much what we have discussed in the podcast has truly been on the mark. I am posting some of the comments, and as promised to the participants, these are anonymous:
“Alternative Education was never somewhere I thought I would have ended up. I always seemed to be successful in my education until High School. Unfortunately, I made some poor decisions early in my High School career that ultimately led to me to needing an Alt Ed program to graduate on time. Although initially embarrassed to be separated from my peers it ultimately was the most positive choice I could have made. The class was closer than any other class I'd previously experienced and it felt much more connected. The teacher became my mentor, providing me with opportunities to further bolster my education. It helped me gain knowledge outside of a textbook and reignited my passion for my education. I’ll forever be grateful for my experience in the program.” (former student of Alt Ed)
“Alternative Education was never in my scope. And then when I saw it it (sic) made sense. Many students found their way and were able to find success – where they had been runover by the schedule, teacher, and the academics. Many of these students were the ones who had God knows what going on in their lives, and the Alternative Education programs and schools were able to accommodate them.
“The only issue with Alternative Education is that those in the mainstream tend to dismiss it as an [illegitimate] mode of education. That is what Alt Ed really needs to work on, itself. Most have fantastic programs that tailor to the needs of the students, and they work with the families, as well – they tend to be comprehensive in that sense. That is what really helps – building trust between the community and the school/program. But if the rest of the educational community sees it as a place for “Those Kids” and as “Easy Education” the mindset will not change. “ (Current Educator)
“When I was first assigned to Alt Ed, I had the assumption that the students I would work with would all have behavioral issues. My perspective changed as I gained experience with my students. I found that you can't have any assumptions at all about students in Alt Ed. Every students story is different and unique. I found myself getting very frustrated and annoyed when people from the community would give generalized comments about "those kids." Saying things like, "Oh I bet it's so rewarding to be a stable adult in their lives." Or, "Oh, that must be so challenging to work with kids that have so many problems." The truth is many students did have problems and many kids didn't have stable parents, but serval students just simply didn't like being a big school. And many students with problems had amazingly supportive, stable parents. So in the end, it came down to meeting each student with no assumptions or judgments. Each kid has a story, and my job was to create safe enough conditions that they would eventually open up enough to share it.” (Current Administrator/Policymaker)
“In my opinion, I think that alternative education is generally viewed negatively from those who don’t realize the opportunities that are given to you. At least from my experience. In my experience as a student in alternative education, a lot of adolescents come from similar backgrounds, and aren’t necessarily incapable of succeeding, but their environment has influenced them negatively. Not for every case, but alternative education helps students who need it find their way. Whether they want to stay the path of a scholar, or transition into working. I’ve heard before that alternative education is where options are narrowed down, but I firmly disagree. It helped me gain experience in different careers, to have better discipline in school, and meet some incredible mentors that I wouldn’t have met otherwise!” (Former Alt Ed Student)
“Alternative Education saved my kid. Really. My son was so lost and he had just about given up on school, we didn’t know what to do. We can’t afford private school, and I don’t think that would have helped him, either. He wasn’t understanding the material and the teachers just kept moving along in the classes. We tried to speak with them and they gave us the same feedback - ‘(X) needs to pay better attention and ask for help’ He did ask for help but it was never the ‘right time’.
“When his counselor suggested the Alternative Ed program we figured, ‘Why not try it?!’ We went in for the interview, signed the papers, and he went in. At first he struggled with the new class. Then he thought it was just easier to focus and get his work done. The teacher was there if he had questions and kept checking in on him to make sure he got it – the teacher even sat down and went through and had (X) explain what he understood and this way they both knew what he didn’t. My son excelled and his attitude toward school changed 180 degrees! He’s graduated from college thanks to the skills he was taught in that program, and he is working a wonderful job! Thank you, Alternative Education!!” (Former Parent)
“My understanding of Alternative Ed was that I believe it had a bad reputation. Because now I've ever heard where the kids at work Struggling with an academically and life and needed extra help. After I got in it completely changed my aspect of things.
Well, for me, I Don't believe I was necessarily struggling in school. I just never had the time and opportunity to really focus on it; because I've been working since I was 14 years old - a 40 hours a week, right after school. Every day. there's not an opportunity to really focus on school and once I went into the program, and there I was given the opportunity to be have tailored everything down to the schedule that I was able to work with, and it ultimately helped me be able to get my school work done, at my pace without it being just like a cookie cutter program.
It was easier for me to understand just two subjects for school. That's something. I was able to take it on my own pace versus having to go at a specific pace that the regular school was. Or i guess that the the class was What's going on? So a lot of times i just needed to take a second longer to reread things, and that's all i needed. I then completely understood it, but I feel like I didn't get that when I was in just regular class.
I did the packets right? I think they were they were just as effective as a class because I would get asked to help students that were in their regular classes and I would just be able to explain the subject that they were on in a way that I felt like if I can explain something to somebody, it's because I understand it and being able to learn at my own pace, whether that's after school, or after I get after, I would get off of work. It really gave me the time to learn at my own pace. They would have pick up a subject a lot faster than if I would have been in just an ordinary class.
“I realized not everyone has the perfect homelife to be able to prioritize school. And I was, unfortunately, one of those students who had to go to work, to be able to help my family; Even if it was a young age. It was something that was mandatory for me to do for us, to be able to get by day by day and school was not a priority for me at that time. And the program tailored it to be able to provide me the opportunity to work on it at my own pace. And I went a lot faster than I would have in school and And I graduated about six months. Early.” (Former Alt Ed Student)
“Well, I’ve always based my opinions off what other people said, ‘Oh, it’s for kids who are struggling or aren’t smart enough.’ OR ‘For kids who have a bad reputation.’ And when I enrolled, I almost felt embarrassed because of the reputation it had. But you know, I learned through the whole process that it was just additional help that I received, or it just worked better for me.
“It was something that benefited me a lot because I tend to doubt myself in everything I do, and school was one of them. I doubted if I was academically smart like everyone in the same classroom setting.
“I learned at my own pace and I feel I had help with that. I wasn’t rushed, and I wouldn’t go into a class setting one day where it’d be another subject and another stage, then pushed into another room with a completely different subject. I appreciated being able to focus on one thing at a time rather than all that hopping around from subject to subject, which caused me to doubt if I could ever graduate.
“Another thing about the program I was in is that it was really inclusive. Even people who weren’t in the program were invited to participate with us. I remember what an impact that had on me. In the regular school it was always the same people who did everything and most of us were excluded. This felt like a home. A family.” (Former Student in Alt Ed)
What is the perception of Alternative Education? Despite the former and current residents of the pedagogical phenomenon crowing about its effectiveness, it is seen as lesser than regular education. Why? Could it be that it seems easier? But it is not. It is still content and standards driven, there are still high expectations, but there is the mentorship/tutorial component that is missing from the regular classroom. True, the numbers are smaller to maintain effectiveness and fidelity to the mission of the schools/programs, but there are also (fingers-crossed) staff who work hard to ensure the students feel Welcome, Wanted, Necessary, Heard, and Able.
Throughout the years I have discovered that many people go into Alternative Education as a mission to change the world. They burn out quickly. I have also discovered many who believe it to be an easy day. They don’t last long, either. Those who last in successful Alternative Education programs/Schools are those who understand that learning is a process – a lifelong process – that never ceases, and they are up to learning and exploring with the students. This is why computerized learning and using those platforms, rather than 1:1 learning, and even packets with the right kind of teacher, is far more efficacious and successful for deeper and longer learning.
If mainstream education is about compliance, rote-learning, and taking tests, then Alternative Education is about casting off those shackles and exploring the world of learning together. Every student has their own story, and we treat them as individuals – not as a herd of sheep that need training; any dullard can figure out how to train or herd. This is why we need and should require well-trained teachers who are empathetic and love teaching for the learning. Then Alternative Education will find itself legitimized.