ACA Blog

Jan 03, 2014

Who needs alternative education programs?

Article: Not long ago I was at an event where folks were speaking about alternative education programs. One gentleman had some less than kind things to say about the type of kid who needs such programming. He described a trouble kid who dabbles with or is addicted to drugs, gets into trouble and is known to the police. A type of kid who was “destined to live on our dime either on welfare for life or in prison” and that “any of the money spent on their education is a waste of tax dollars as they will never amount to anything…”  I listened fascinatedly as he spoke of the derelicts who were nothing more than throw aways from society.

When he took a break in his speech I raised my hand and thought I would add to the conversation. What follows is as close to what I said as my memory allows.

While it is true that some kids who go to alternative education are derelicts, in fact, many who never go to alternative education are as well. Some kids no matter the education, will end up in jail, on welfare or somehow dependent on help, never to become self-sufficient.  Many however, will go on to be successful adults. Alternative educational programs are simply programs designed to help those who have needs and or learning styles that do not fit well within the cookie cutter approach that is public education. While there are countless talented educators who are doing their very best day in and day out, they often find their hands tied by politicians who feel that they know more than those in the field of education and as a result set up mandates (many of which are unfunded or underfunded) that focus more on testing than on hands on experiential learning. This scenario leaves much to be desired and only works for folks who are within the “average” range in terms of learning style. Those who do not fit well in this system often find themselves feeling anxiety, depression, and feeling as though they do not fit in or otherwise alienated. This may lead to tardiness, truancy, failing grades, behavioral issues and dropping out. And heaven help them if they come from broken homes or live in poverty.

Children who have different needs are no more destined to welfare or prison than anyone else provided that society chose to meet its obligation to educate its citizens. In fact, many brilliant minds find themselves having a great deal of difficulty adjusting to a traditional educational setting. To put it in a simple dollar and cents way: it costs far less to adjust educational methods to meet the legitimate needs of a child than it does to write that child off as a loss and encourage them to be dependent on the system for life.

What does the “typical” kid who uses a program such as the former “Westwoods” alternate educational program (Bristol, CT) look like? From what I understand it takes a child with at least an average IQ (they cannot meet the needs of a child who requires traditional special ed services) who is in danger of or who has dropped out of school for a period of time. It is not uncommon to see some type of behavioral issue which may take the form of anger, anxiety, behavioral outbursts, or drug use. It does not mean however that all or most of these factors are found in the child. There must be a reason that these services are required.

Far from having things handed to them, the hard working educators in these programs are well versed not only in education but also in ways to work with children and parents who may be volatile at times. They have the right combination of compassion, tenacity, firmness and fairness that promotes growth. They also know the how and when of picking battles. These professionals will grade a child on the work that gets done meaning no work, no grades and no handouts.

Thousands of our children utilize these programs and only a small fraction become dependent on society via incarceration or other means. Many if not most, depending on the program, go on to graduate high school and though no data was found to be readily available at the moment, from interviews with past students of these types of programs, many go on to tech schools, college and other specialized programs including military service.

Graduates of these programs are found in all walks of life. They are front line workers, middle management and “C” level employees (such as CEO, CFO, COO Etc.). They are police officers, EMT’s, teachers, doctors and other professionals. They are mechanics, technicians and business owners.

I personally was once a 15 year old single father with custody of his son. I was a drop out from a family of many drop outs. After my son was a few months old I secured daycare services from family and applied to the Westwoods program because they allowed you to work are your own pace which included at least at the time, the ability to do double credits if you did double work. I worked after school and on weekends as well. I entered the school in late October or early November and stayed for the remainder of the school year. I started with .75 credits but due to much hard work and dedication on my part and that of the supportive staff, I was able to go back to regular classes at my old high school as a junior; this would have been impossible in a traditional setting.

While I have spent time in prisons, it was in the form of that of a professional providing mental health services. I have gone on to earn about a dozen credentials and founded a not for profit agency that seeks to provide services based on need, not on financial ability.

I am not remarkable in terms of these types of programs. I know of others who have graduated from these types of programs who have also pursued a doctorate as well. Many have and continue to make real and lasting changes in their communities.

When asking the question as to who needs alternative educational programs I would simply say “everyone” as we all benefit on a daily basis from the fruits of the labor of the staff and students of these as well as traditional programming.

Give me your throw aways as many of them will become the leaders of tomorrow. After all, many of the leaders of today were once ones themselves. 
________________________________________________________________________

"Doc Warren" Corson III is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of Community Counseling of Central CT Inc. and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.docwarren.org).

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