Alternative School Makeover

By Frederick M. Hampton

Three years ago, I received a call from the principal of an alternative school in a small urban district in northeast Ohio. The principal wanted me to help address two problems: the relationship between teachers and students, and the teachers’ difficulty in managing students’ behavior.

I have many years experience as a principal and a professor of educational leadership, but my background is not in alternative school education. But I agreed to meet with the principal and staff, make some general observations about the school and classes, and offer suggestions.

The school, which serves grades three through eight, has less than 75 students. All have severe behavioral problems and were assigned to this building as an alternative to expulsion. Ideally, students remain until they can learn to better control their behaviors before returning to their home schools. Stays vary from a few weeks to an entire school year.

When I started visiting the school, all of the students -- most of them male -- were from lower-income Hispanic, African-American, and Caucasian families. Fewer than 20 staff, including administrators, teachers, secretarial, and custodial employees, served the school. The staff also included Hispanic, African-American, and Caucasian adults.

My informal school visits started with the principal introducing me to teachers and students, telling them of my purpose and helping me to form preliminary impressions of the relationships within the school. On each visit, I assessed how students, teachers, non-certified staff, and the principal interacted.

These visits became weekly trips, and I hoped they would help teachers and students feel more at ease. Soon, the teachers gave me an open invitation to visit their classrooms. I wanted to be a “member of the school family” as opposed to an outsider who knew nothing about them and only was there to find fault.

Previous experience taught me that teachers, in particular, are more receptive to comments and suggestions when someone makes an honest attempt to understand them and their circumstances. Without that, my suggestions could be discarded, if not resented. Although I did not realize it at the time, what was originally intended to be a several-week project ultimately would last two years. 

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