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Generation Voice: A glimpse into Delaware's alternative schools

The school year here in Delaware just ended and with it - another year of our Generation Voice youth media project at Mt. Pleasant High School in the Brandywine School.  Over the next couple of weeks in Enlighten Me, we'll want to highlight some of the work done by students there.

First up - a piece that builds on one we aired earlier this year by Mt. Pleasant High School sophomore Maya Williams on the so-called ‘school to prison pipeline’ -  students getting in trouble in school and ultimately ending up in prison. Though that story she heard about alternative schools and the role they play in that journey. So – Maya joined forces with fellow sophomore Jada Thomas to investigate how alternative schools work in Delaware.





We’re both sophomores at Mt. Pleasant High School and we’re here today to talk about alternative schools. We’re also both inner -city kids. We’ve seen first hand how many of our classmates - from elementary to middle and now high school - end up in alternative schools.


But we’ve never been to one, so we wanted to investigate how students end up there, what the environment is like and if they change students for better or for worse.


This is Jada. Most of my friends who’ve been to alternative schools don’t necessarily see them as bad. They say they’re “jumpin” - fun, exciting. Basically, they feel like they can get away with anything.


This is Maya. I’ve only lived in Delaware for a few years, but it didn’t take me long to become familiar with the Wilmington area. It’s a very small, tight knit city. There's an energy here, and it's like all the kids feed off of each other. If someone sees a friend getting shipped off to an alternative school, they want to go too because there's a sort of family dynamic.


Setting our own preconceived notions aside, we decided to call up the state Department of Education to ask them how alternative schools in Delaware work. We talked to John Sadowski, who’s in charge of discipline.


“So alternative placement is for students that have primarily had chronic and repetitive disciplinary issues within the regular school setting, although it can be for more severe, one-time incidents as well,” Sadowski said.


Alternative schools determine how long the student's placement may last ranging anywhere from thirty to ninety days. It all depends on academics, attendance, and behavior.


“Those are the three biggies,” Sadowski said. “If you’re making outstanding progress, we’ll kind of do an evaluation at that point and see if we can transition you back earlier.”


And while Delaware school districts are able to establish their own codes of conduct, Sadowsky said they’re very similar. But not every district has its own alternative school.


“What we have is … the legislation created this years ago said that each of the county school districts can come together and form a consortium,” Sadowski said. “Rather than providing this individual programming in their schools. It’s cheaper to provide the services by combining forces so that’s what all  the counties have done.”


But we’re not sure the cheapest option is the best - and we have our doubts about how well alternative schools are working. So, we talked to Malik Muhammad, head of Parkway schools.


“Our mission is to serve and transform young people,” Muhammad said. “The way that we do all of our work, the teaching styles, the discipline processes, the counseling elements: all of those are done through a therapeutic lens.”


One of the mental health methods he says Parkway has adopted is the restorative practice method.


“Which is a model that’s designed to build relationships, to have a balance between control and challenge, and holding people accountable, also with a strong dose of support,” he said.


Muhammad says their statistics are proof that method is working.


“97% of the students who come to a Parkway school have fewer days of out of school suspension than they did when they were in a traditional school environment.”


But he also says just because things are good inside the school doesn’t mean that things are good outside of school.


“I’m bothered by the number of students across the board at Parkway or otherwise that we lose to homicide each year,” Muhammad said. “What bothers me and something that i think we need to look at is across the board all schools in New Castle county,public schools,alternative schools, many young boys,black and latino boys are being killed. I think that needs to be a measure of our success as well.”


Dr. Kim Allen is the director of Brandywine Community School, an alternative school serving Brandywine School District students. She has first-hand experience with how guns impact students in the school environment.


“We do talk about consequences all the time, and I think that’s really important,” Allen said. “We’ve had a young middle school boy hanging out with some older boys, they were hanging in the park and a police car pulled up. And one of the older boys said, ‘Hold this,’ and of course, the younger boy, thinking it was a toy gun, got stuck with the gun. But one of the nice things is we have relationships with the courts. We will go to the courts if we have to. I will go to the courts personally and speak on behalf of the student. I think that’s one of the plusses that we can do as a program, that schools just don’t have the time to do. I know schools would do it if they had the time to. But we’re fortunate and I feel very blessed that we can do it and make a difference.”


Dr. Allen says trauma plays a huge role in the performance of students, not only academically - but also behaviorally.


“Nowadays trauma is very big in the schools and our students are dealing with a lot of trauma,” she said. “But unfortunately as we find a lot of times schools aren’t aware of this because they’re so large,that a student has seen a parent shot, a family that’s homeless,a family that’s had to move as a result of violence in the community.”


She recalled a heart-breaking moment working with a student who’s experienced trauma.


“One of the saddest situations I’ve ever had was, I had a young lady who had a stepfather-or her mother's boyfriend-who was abusing her,” Allen said. “She didn’t wanna tell her mom because her mom was happy. And I said to her, ‘We’re mandated reporters, we have to report.’ She said, ‘Will you talk to my mom with me?’ We said ‘Of course we will.’ Obviously, we proceeded with that. And those are the things I will say, are obviously very troubling, but I’m glad we’re there to catch that. You know, a girl like that in a big school could be lost.”


She says the school focuses on parent involvement as a necessary component of student wellness.


“But the good news is we can meet with our families, families have to meet with us,” she said. “We have an intake that parents must attend. We have home visits,we have family nights. We do what we can,and not just for the student who’s in our school,but for the entire family.”


But sometimes - despite all the support - it just isn’t enough.


“We certainly have students who return,” Allen said. “It can be due to family circumstance, it can be due to things in the community. There are a lot of things out of our control as you know.I think the saddest things is when i have to go to a service for a student who may have gotten caught up in the community,and we just wish we could’ve been there for them.”


We talked to Mr. Simmons, a teacher here at Mount Pleasant who identifies the types of students who are more likely to be sent to an alternative school.


“Normally the kids who have lower test grades or… poor academics are the ones who go to the alternative school,” Simmons said. “And from what the data shows, that’s normally kids from what we would call “lesser backgrounds.”


Simmons says that some students are unmotivated and their placement has nothing to do with teacher qualifications or the relationships teachers establish with their students.


“What else do you want them to do? Sometimes there is nothing that they can really do, because the student is hell-bent on going in the direction that they wanna be in,” Simmons said. “Don’t like to say it, but I think there is a need for kids who cannot conform to the behavioral requirements of an academic environment who need to be placed in an alternative setting so that the others can be successful.”


However, he understands that when a student does go to an alternative school, it can hurt them academically.


“But I do know that kids who go to an alternative program or if they go to an alternative school and come back are usually behind, so obviously it's not adequate because they are not in a place they would be if they were in a regular school,” he said.


We also spoke to Ms. Jeter - a paraeducator here at Mt. Pleasant. She was previously employed at Brandywine Community School. While she couldn’t speak for all alternative schools, she was confident in her old school’s success.But she felt the same way Simmons did about the transition from alternative back to regular school.


“The only drawback or con I would say is that sometimes students lose… they lose a lot while they’re there,” Jeter said. “When they return back to school, to an academic setting, they lose that skill of ‘This is what it means to be a student in a large population of students.’ So that’s the only con.”


A lot of the students Jeter works with at Mount are kids she established relationships with while working at the Brandywine Community School.


“One student in particular, even though staff may see him as disrespectful to them, he still greets me with ‘Hey Ms Jeter, what’s up?’ so I get where he’s coming from and I can re-direct him without getting cursed out,” she said.


Jeter said this student in particular has come a long way. While he’s still getting in trouble at the high school level, at least he knows what his triggers are. Ms. Jeter says he was missing discipline at home, and wasn’t used to being held accountable for his actions - and having consequences attached to them - in the school setting. She says getting him acclimated to that now is a work in progress.


Throughout the process of reporting on alternative schools, we learned that people will only talk about what they’re comfortable with. We reached out to Parkway Academy and the Brandywine Community School in an effort to add a student’s perspective, but we weren’t given access. We also talked to counselors at our own school to see if any current students who’ve been through alternative schools would be willing to talk to us - they weren’t. Even some adults didn’t feel comfortable answering all questions.


Some like Mr. Simmons were more candid about their opinions of alternative schools. He has serious concerns about grouping kids with similar behavior issues together at the same alternative school.


“It’s almost like incarceration in a sense,” Simmons said. “You know how they say  incarceration doesn’t rehabilitate criminals, it just makes better criminals? That’s my feeling. Kids learn tricks from other kids who are getting in trouble.”


We learned that there are many components that factor into an alternative school’s success. It’s sort of like baking cake - if you don’t have all of your ingredients it’s not going to turn out right. Some of the key factors include teacher training, family involvement, mental health interventions, and teacher-student relationships.


Mr. Simmons feels there is a way to prevent kids from ending up in alternative schools in the first place. And we agree - we definitely feel there needs to be a greater emphasis on early intervention so that we can prevent future generations of students from cycling through alternative schools.


“I really believe that if we can educate these kids before they get to the 3rd grade, I think that would eliminate some of the issues that they have once they get to middle school and high school,” Simmons said.


While we don’t have enough information to declare all alternative schools in Delaware a success or failure, we do know we need to start changing the community’s stigma surrounding alternative schools.


Schools should be safe places where students aren’t afraid to ask for help, and unfortunately intervention now doesn’t come until they’ve already started to drift  down the wrong path.



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