Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Thoughts from the Margins: A Five-Year Longitudinal Exploration with Former Alternative Education Youth

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Thoughts from the Margins: A Five-Year Longitudinal Exploration with Former Alternative Education Youth

Article excerpt

Although pedagogical reform measures usually aim towards the future, their long-term effects on the lives of youth in the margins often times remain unknown. While federal and state mandates assist young people who have documented special needs, those of young people who do not meet the strict criteria of formal classification may remain unmet; in fact, innovative attempts may even be impeded by recent mandating legislation because of its standardization attempts (Gable, Bullock, & Evans, 2006). At present, alternative education (AE) programs do exist for students considered "at-risk" of failing in today's school systems, but there is little agreement about optimal programming criteria and efforts or any real consensus on which students should be included in this definition (Foley & Pang, 2006; Kleiner, Porch, & Farris, 2002; Quinn, Poirier, & Faller, 2006). The lack of effort for this population is especially pronounced when the relatively small group of students failing in schools otherwise considered to be "successful" (by state determined standards) is considered. This latter student population - one that resides in the "margins" (Kumashiro, 2000) of general education systems in these otherwise successful schools - comprises a research worthy, yet frequently overlooked, target of reform. Follow up studies on the long-term effects of school efforts related to this population are especially needed.

During the school year of 2010-2011, I undertook a study (Harnischfeger, 2015) exploring the perceptions of a group of eighth grade, alternatively placed, non-conforming students from a successful, suburban, upstate New York school, in relation to educational practices. I strived to explore these young people's constructions of self in relation to school practices, along with their thoughts on education in general and the alternative program to which they belonged. I argued that a better realization of these youths' perspectives could lead to important knowledge of the effects of school marginalization and to a resulting increase in effective institutional practices.

Over the seven months that I was immersed in the alternative education classroom of the study's targeted school, I became close to the unique, interesting youth who served as my effort's central participants. During the five years that followed, I frequently wondered about their high school experiences and the reality of their larger, post-school identities and lives. How did these (now) young adults look back on their time in the alternative classroom and what, if any, effect did they believe it had on the reality of their present lives? The present, longitudinal component to that earlier work responds to the call of Quinn et al., (2006) for longitudinal research that aims towards determining the long-term outcomes for students placed in alternative programs. Likewise, it adheres to the suggestions of Pifer (2000), Loutzenheiser (2002), and Peterson (2014) for the inclusion of youth voice in this kind of effort. Hopefully, the findings from the combination of these two studies will contribute to greater knowledge of young people who reside on the "outside" of our general schooling system and an improvement in reform applications that better meet their needs.

This present study, like my first, is a qualitative endeavor that seeks to explore its participants' lived experiences in the authentic contexts of their current lives and perceptions. As did Peterson's (2014) effort to explore the understandings of a gifted young woman, this work is centered within an "emergent and flexible design" (p.296 cited in Patton, 2005, p. 278). Likewise, I began with orienting "sensitizing concepts" (Peterson, 2014, p. 296), including my first work's finding that my participants perceived a conceptualization of their "otherness" in school. The aim of this longitudinal component was to sensitively listen to these young adults who had previously been viewed as "problems" in school. …

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