The challenge for alternative schools is similar throughout the state: How do you provide the social and emotional support needed by young people who have had major problems in the regular school system, while at the same time providing a sound academic program that deals with the deficits in their learning and lack of classroom success? And how do you do this while meeting rigorous new state standards, including the High School Exit Exam?
There are no easy answers. In Santa Barbara, we have found that community partnerships have helped us in many important ways reach our mission of respect, reconnection and readiness. We have also found ways to restructure our educational delivery system to better meet the evolving needs of our students.
Who we are
First, some background: El Puente Community School - Santa Barbara is an alternative school within the Santa Barbara County Education Office whose purpose is to serve at-risk students from grades seven through 12 who have had problems as a result of their behavior in the regular school system, including truancy, drug or alcohol abuse, anger, fighting or expulsion.
Our county superintendent, Bill Cirone, has provided the leadership needed to seek community support and services for the campus. He knows the difficulty parents face when their child is referred to an alternative school and he wants the experience to be safe, healthy and successful. The goal is to help young people learn to accept responsibility for their actions and learn to make good decisions. Superintendent Cirone has inspired us to do as much as we possibly can to help each student meet his or her rehabilitation plan in a safe and positive school environment.
Respect, reconnection and readiness
EPSB's mission is based on three fundamental principles: respect, reconnection and readiness. These principles are stated clearly and also dictate how we operate our schools. Our first responsibility is to provide all the students with a safe school. When students enroll, they are asked to sign and honor the school's Neutral Territory Agreement. It ensures their commitment to keep the school safe.
Respect and responsibility are expectations that must be met by all students and staff. Our local law enforcement agencies are constantly available to the students and staff, and can be seen on our campus on a daily basis. The District Attorney's Truancy Program has been instrumental in helping to curb truancy at our school site. The entire staff receives ongoing training in safety and identification of such high-risk behaviors as anger, social misconduct disorders, drug and alcohol use, depression and emotional or physical abuse.
In addition, all teacher assistants are trained in conflict mediation. They are asked to mediate conflicts among students on a daily basis. Once students are able to agree to mediation, they are asked to sign a mediation contract and honor the terms.
A key ingredient to our ability to help our students has been partnerships, created through a variety of grants and donations in connection with an array of community-based agencies. These partnerships have enabled us to help our students deal with sobriety and other emotional and behavioral needs, while also helping their families understand that their children need the support of the school and the community.
One of our most important partners is the Council of Drug and Alcohol Fighting Back Program, which provides two full-time counselors known as Youth Services Specialists. They provide individual, group, crisis and family counseling for all the students, and they help coordinate other agencies to come to school to provide more specific services. Youth Services Specialists also provide an after-school drug and alcohol treatment program using acupuncture and counseling at the Daniel Bryant Treatment Center.
Other agencies in this category include Planned Parenthood (healthy relationships counseling); Community Action Commission (Los Compadres); Zona Seca (family coaches); Teenage Parenting Program; Girls Inc. (health and relationships) and Mental Health. Community partnerships with City of Peace, Speaking of Stories and Art for Walk have also provided students with classes in art, literature, drama, film-making, photography and poetry.
The Beyond Tolerance Center in Santa Barbara has enabled our teachers to attend summer institutes (one week of training) in "Facing Our History," a curriculum taught by all our teachers that focuses on the struggles throughout history that arise from racism, discrimination and intolerance.
For the past five years, the school has been committed to taking our students to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The trip is attended by 80 students with 80 members of the community who are mentors for the day. The purpose is to help bring about in our students a closer connection to the community. It is funded partly by the Beyond Tolerance Center and donations from the Rotary Club.
Other vital partnerships
EPSB has been very fortunate to have tremendous support from the Sunrise Rotary Club, whose members monthly honor a student who has been able to turn his or her life around in a positive and productive way. It also provides donations to help fund the trips to the Museum of Tolerance and join the students as mentors for the day. The Rotary Club provides scholarships to seniors, and is always willing to help with any special need when asked.
Santa Barbara City College is another vital partner with our school. Students can enroll in college courses through its Advanced High School program and online courses. City College helped us bring a computer repair program to our school by providing the teacher training, equipment and guidance for the class to be taught at our campus. The course is being offered every year with the goal of enhancing technology in the classroom. The students are able to refurbish computers and use them at home once they complete the three-semester course.
The academic program
The coordination and development of these partnerships are a top priority at our school, but our primary focus is our academic program. The teaching staff understands it is vital to have students work on behaviors on a daily basis in order for them to become successful in the classroom. The supportive staff makes sure that students have access to programs and services throughout the day.
Being a member of the teaching staff is very challenging, because so much is being offered at the site and because of the demands we place on our teachers to provide the best educational settings for all the students while remaining positive, creative and inspiring.
Our assistant superintendent for instructional services, Carol Johansen, has helped us restructure the academic program to focus on the deficits that our students face in the areas of reading, writing and math. One important goal is to help all students pass the California High School Exit Exam and meet content standards for high school. She has provided the teaching staff with support, teacher trainings and opportunities that focus on strategies, programs and standards-based instruction. Our site is on track to met the Alternative Schools Accountability Model (ASAM) requirements that will be implemented statewide this spring.
At EPSB, we have been working toward standards-based instruction in the areas of language arts and mathematics. The first step toward our goal of having all our students reading at grade level was to have the teachers trained in Corrective Reading, a commercial intervention program that was implemented this past June. The second step was the training of all teachers to teach high school algebra and pre-algebra, which was implemented at the start of the summer session.
Secondary Literacy Support Network
This past September EPSB was accepted as a pilot school with WestEd's Secondary Literacy Support Network, which has provided our site's literacy team (the principal and two teachers) with a tremendous amount of information, support, programs and strategies to develop an intensive literacy intervention program that will reshape our school.
EPSB has been gradually moving from an independent, self-paced strategy to direct instruction, where the focus is on student learning and achievement. The three-year commitment with the Secondary Literacy Support Network will help us reach all of our students in the most effective manner possible.
WestEd trained the team in implementing Diagnostic Assessment in Reading at the site level. The DAR, an excellent assessment tool for at-risk secondary level students, allows us to interpret and effectively use data to develop appropriate intensive interventions in reading and writing. Upcoming trainings will focus on how to teach reading strategies in a comprehensive manner using scripted programs (Corrective Reading and REACH), effective teaching strategies to build vocabulary and word usage, comprehension skills and spelling.
Another exciting aspect of being part of WestED's literacy program has been the opportunity to develop a plan to train teachers to teach reading and writing while they teach math, history and other subject areas. The next few phases of the plan will focus on teaching students the different styles of writing that will help them pass the HSEE. Our team joined the other pilot schools in presenting their literacy plans this spring at the Secondary Literacy Summit in Sacramento.
Now we are working harder than ever to provide a sound academic reading and writing program that crosses over all areas of content to give all our students the opportunities that they might have missed due to the behaviors that kept them out of school.
Meeting the benchmarks
The way alternative education has conducted business has evolved tremendously over the past few years. There is no doubt that standards-based instruction and the HSEE have been instrumental in holding us accountable for changes in academic delivery methods at our site.
Being at an alternative school with the small class size (25:2); the self-contained classroom (elementary school teaching model); and the dedicated, caring and talented professional teaching staff have helped us meet the challenges of these times. When a school like ours has support and leadership from the district, the support and respect of the community and a dedicated teaching staff, we can meet those benchmarks placed by the state and by our own high standards.
It has taken years to develop a strong alternative school, and the process is ongoing -- which is part of the satisfaction of being in alternative education.
Cecilia Molina is principal of El Puente Community School in Santa Barbara. She was ACSA's Continuation and Alternative Education Options Administrator of the Year in 2000-01.…