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What We Can Learn from Alternative Schools

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By Betsy Brand

One thing is clear when you walk into an alternative school--it feels very different from a regular high school. There is a palpable sense of comfort; of being in a friendly, welcoming environment; and of feeling safe and respected.  

The leaders who manage alternative schools know that relationships come first, and that without authentic, respectful, caring relationships between adults and youth, meaningful learning won't take place. Alternative school leaders are deliberate and intentional about creating a unique culture that encourages and builds respect between youth and adults.

How do these insightful leaders create environments where everyone feels like family, teachers do whatever it takes to help students learn, and youth meet and exceed the high expectations set for them? An integral part of their school design is a focus on social and emotional learning. Yet, alternative schools approach the teaching of social and emotional skills in different ways.  

The Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) in Boston, Massachusetts serves students who have attended other schools where they have struggled academically; have been held back one or more times; or have felt lost, unsafe, or unengaged. Once at BDEA, students flourish because they are listened to, respected for who they are and for the gifts they possess, and because the method of teaching and assessment makes sense to them. BDEA uses student support teams to assist students, parents, and teachers in promoting positive mental, emotional, and social relationships in the school community; resolving conflicts in healthy ways; and contributing positively to the climate of the school.

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For example, BDEA utilizes conflict mediation to resolve issues between youth and to help them learn how to handle their emotions, in school and out of school. When disagreements arise, students are guided through mediated conversations to resolve their issues with the support of trained staff. Staff are also trained to identify stress factors before they escalate. This focus on addressing challenges proactively helps students learn self-control, respect, and problem-solving.

Another example of how BDEA helps its students address bias and stereotypes is an exchange program between student leaders at BDEA and Hudson High School, a traditional high school in western Massachusetts. These sometimes challenging but always fruitful interactions between students with very different backgrounds help them practice empathy, self-control, and self-reflection in a real life setting.

In Hartford, Connecticut, Our Piece of the Pie (OPP) helps urban youth ages 14 to 24 become economically independent adults. OPP invests in forging and growing personal, consistent relationships between each youth and a caring, committed, and proactive adult staff member, called Youth Development Specialists (YDS). These specialists are by the side of every young person in the program, helping them navigate barriers and work towards a high school diploma, a college degree or vocational certification, and a rewarding career. OPP delivers an individualized and effective combination of services based on three fields of practice that include youth development, academics, and job readiness. Through their school-based and out-of-school time programming, OPP helps youth learn goal setting, personal development, persistence, interviewing skills, confidence building, and self-advocacy skills.

What do these examples have in common? Both schools recognize the importance of connection between youth and adults and between youth and their peers.  They provide opportunities to foster deep relationships that address not only academic needs, but also personal, family, and health issues. By creating these bonds and focusing on the development of strong social and emotional skills as an integral part of their design, alternative schools are helping youth, one by one, improve their life chances and be prepared for learning, work, and civic life.

Betsy Brand has served as Executive Director of the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) since 2004 and has been at AYPF since 1998. She is a nationally-known expert in education, youth, and workforce policies and has extensive experience in both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.

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