Academic journal article Education Next

Out of the Mainstream: Staying There Isn't Easy

Academic journal article Education Next

Out of the Mainstream: Staying There Isn't Easy

Article excerpt

I spoke recently with a teacher at an alternative public high school. His students had been kicked out of their neighborhood schools for fighting, truancy, and drug abuse, and his job was to remedy the students' behavior so they could return to their neighborhood schools. I wondered, what happened to the alternative school I remembered from the 1970s? It seemed so different from the alternative schools of today.

Alternative East High School in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, was modeled after the famous Parkway alternative school in Philadelphia. From 1971 to 1983, Alternative East drew students from Philadelphia and the surrounding suburban school districts of Abington, Cheltenham, and Springfield. The principal, Gisha Berkowitz, took the job after first becoming known as an "active parent."

At Alternative East, students could create their own courses. As long as the course met college entry requirements, students could develop it, find a faculty member to teach it, and then advertise the class on a poster. If 15 students expressed interest, they could register for the course during master scheduling days held twice during the year. Students seldom sat in classrooms all day. Instead of looking at slides, for example, an art class piled into a van to visit local galleries.

Alternative East was continually evaluated and received positive reviews. Berkowitz carefully kept the budget from getting "out of balance." So why did the school close?

As is often the case, the answer at the time was money. In 1983, Abington's school board, in a 5-4 vote, withdrew the district's participation, forcing the school to close its doors. Nevertheless, minutes from board meetings praised Alternative East and its programs, which included production of a children's play at a local mall and learning activities in genetics. The board justified its decision by saying that district schools had "highly skilled, highly paid people, and we should be able to provide for the needs of these [students]."

The underlying causes were probably more deep-seated. Times had changed. When the school opened, according to Berkowitz, students were politically alienated by the Vietnam War, racial segregation, and traditional schooling. …

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