Developing effective, standards-based practices that can be used by teachers serving students in alternative education settings--whether in learning centers, on independent study or in home and hospital settings--can be a daunting task. After all, not only are these the students for whom the traditional system has not worked, but these students meet with their teachers much less frequently and for less time than do their peers in comprehensive high schools. Indeed, alternative education has often been considered an inferior mode for student learning for those very reasons.
Will the addition of yet higher expectations, rigorous adherence to core content standards and new assessment mandates merely add to the likelihood that students in alternative education will fall further behind their peers? Or might such an approach finally provide the equity and access that has been traditionally overlooked in our attempt to serve all students who enter the alternative educational system?
One district committed to making sure that all kids will be able to measure up to the new state standards and assessments is the Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, which has undertaken the ambitious task of rewriting the core curriculum in math, science, English/language arts and social science.
The district's product is a series of rigorous academic courses deeply aligned to each content area's state standards, state mandated tests and to district end-of-course exams. This focus was developed in collaboration with teams of classroom teacher leaders who serve on district standards and assessment teams, with university partners and through community outreach.
All new course descriptions identify essential district content standards and objectives that teachers are expected to teach. Each objective is supported with resources for the teacher and with test items in three contexts: multiple choice, constructed response and authentic "teal world" to show teachers what mastery of the objective looks like. Concept review and practice as well as prerequisites to the learning are built into the course guide.
Staff development is provided for all subject-area teachers by grade level as the new curriculum is introduced. Although the primary focus is content, the curriculum-centered workshops also incorporate model lessons and effective, research-based instructional strategies for the classroom teachers.
But what is the district doing about the students who won't be learning in traditional classrooms--with the classroom teachers for whom these instructional strategies and course guides have been designed? Of the 36,000 students in the district, as many as 4,000 will at some point during the coming year avail themselves of at least one alternative education credit. Certainly they are entitled to the same level of rigor and instructional commitment as is evidenced throughout the regular classrooms in the district.
In order to address this equity issue and provide equally well-thought-out and rigorous learning opportunities for the students learning via independent study, transformation of the extensive guidelines and resources was necessary. This work in progress was predicated by a series of critical questions upon which our team reflected before beginning its work:
* How do we maintain fidelity to the district's highly aligned curriculum and assessment while relying on the one-on-one instructional delivery model most commonly used in independent study?
* How do we establish a level of confidence in the work of the alternative education teachers--and acceptance of the quality of their students' work--that would allow these students in successfully return to the regular education program once they have recovered their credits?
* How can we adequately train teachers who have not traditionally been included in district-wide curriculum development …