The Washington Post
By David Osborne and Peter Plastrik

In most American cities, public leaders wring their hands about “at-risk kids” — those who drop out, get pregnant or get into drugs or gangs. No one knows what to do with them, and everyone fears they will create a lifetime of social problems.

One state has figured out a solution that works for many of these kids. In Minnesota, 47,000 students age 12 or above — roughly 12 percent of that age group in public schools — attend 290 small alternative schools. They aren’t assigned there as punishment, as in some states with smaller programs. They choose their schools.

These are “very tough kids, who have had really tough lives,” says John Ouellette-Howitz, who coordinates Minneapolis’s alternative schools. In one survey of 26 kids at three schools, 10 had a family member addicted to drugs or alcohol, seven had a family member involved in criminal activity, six had a family member who was mentally ill, 10 were worried about being pregnant, five used drugs, and five had been arrested.

Surveys show that students choose alternative schools because they are small (85 percent have fewer than 150 students, and a third have 50 or fewer), they work on an intensely personal level with kids, and they offer flexible, individualized instruction and hands-on learning opportunities. Several operate in the evening, for students who work during the day.

Many also offer services rarely found in a public school, such as drug or alcohol treatment. Sobriety High in Edina, Minn., helps students who have had alcohol or drug problems, for example. The City Inc. in Minneapolis offers a group home for girls, family and individual counseling, day care for the children of teenage parents, court-ordered day treatment for chemical dependency, and a carpentry program.

“I see a lot more creativity in the alternative schools on school-to-work, work-based learning, and career-based learning,” says Gene Johnson, an alternative program specialist in the Minnesota Department of Education. “St. Paul has put in a program where they’re building deck furniture, which allows them to make a little money, building and selling things and running stores.”

As in any system, quality is uneven: Some schools are better than others. Some of the most creative are operated by nonprofit organizations, on contract with a school district. Minneapolis has 19 such programs that teach 1,000 students. Free from district red tape — such as the teacher-hiring process — they handpick their teachers and handcraft their programs.

“They have some of the best people you could ever meet,” says Ouellette-Howitz. “The dedication they have is phenomenal; they really care about the kids.”

They also have an advantage over private schools funded by vouchers: The public school district spends at least three times the $2,000 most current U.S. voucher programs award per student. Many use computers heavily, so students can learn what they want, at their own pace.

Do They Work?

The alternative schools are not panaceas. At three sites studied by University of Minnesota researchers Cheryl Lange and Camilla Lehr, 40 percent of the 59 kids they surveyed dropped out during the year. Those who remained made significant progress in reading, but little in math or writing. They were clearly more satisfied than they were in their traditional schools, however, and their attitudes and commitment were better.

In Minneapolis, district officials report that students enter alternative schools far behind their grade levels, but those who stick with it progress at least one grade level per year.

“You have to use a `but for’ test: But for these schools, they’d be dropouts,” says Peter Hutchinson, who served as superintendent in Minneapolis for 31/2 years. “So if you said, `Does this program work?’ — at that level, there’s no question that it works.”

“I’ve interviewed lots of these kids, and I always ask them what would have happened if they hadn’t come here. And they all say, `I would have dropped out.’ Then I ask them what’s different about this school, and they all say the same thing — in fact, it’s haunting how similar their answers are. They say, `This school was designed for me.’ ”

Lange and her research team have found that many students who had been labeled “emotionally disturbed” and placed in special education classes, at enormous expense to the taxpayer, were suddenly no longer emotionally disturbed after they enrolled in alternative schools.

“You just don’t see disruptive behavior; you don’t see disrespectful behavior,” says Lange. “And we’ve been in these schools a lot.”

She believes there are four reasons. First, “students tell us they are treated differently; they are more respected by staff.” Second, the schools offer more counseling and related services. Third, “if you look at area learning centers and alternative schools, their characteristics are close to what the ideal special education service-delivery system would be — individual learning plans, contracts with students, one-to-one tutoring, and so on.” Finally, “if the student does not conform to the rules or their contract, they’re out. They do kick kids out. That’s what a choice system allows you to do, because the kids chose to come, and there are other alternatives they can go to if they aren’t willing to meet the terms the school sets.”

“There’s a theme that comes out of all of our surveys and interviews with students and teachers, and that is the importance of relationships,” Lange adds. “These students really desire an environment that fosters relationships between staff and students.”

School choice is a key motivator as well. “If you’re going to set up programs for at-risk youth, allowing them the choice is very important. In most other states kids are placed in alternative schools, and it becomes punitive.”

The Price Tag

How does Minnesota afford 290 alternative schools for 47,000 kids? Simple. When students choose alternative schools, the money from their district follows them to the new school. It’s money the state is already spending. In fact, the alternative schools probably cut down on state spending for special education.

Realizing that public education needs to reach these students at earlier ages, the legislature has appropriated additional funds for after-school, Saturday and summer programs for younger kids who are falling behind. Minneapolis used that money to provide summer school for 10,000 kids last summer — four times the normal turnout.

Is it worth all the effort? Consider just two facts: Every year these schools lure more than 3,000 adult dropouts back into school — many of whom earn that all-important high school diploma. And almost 30 percent of the diplomas Minneapolis gave out last year went to graduates of alternative schools — most of whom would have dropped out otherwise, according to district officials.

There are no easy answers for at-risk kids, and Minnesota’s alternative schools don’t work for all of them. But it’s hard to argue with numbers like these.

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