Maria was sixteen. Her teachers and parents had noticed her black clothes and strange hairstyle. (They did not know about the self-inflicted cuts on her arms.) But she had stayed on the honor roll - what more could they ask? Everyone was surprised when they found her sprawled in the high school corridor overdosed on anti-depressants. She said it wasnít really a suicide attempt, although that is what the police reported.
Maria decided that she was going to find a way to make good grades and be happy. Her friends had told her about SAIL, a small public alternative high school with a friendly atmosphere where teachers and students are on a first-name basis. She called and was placed on the waiting list. Six weeks later an opening occurred, and she went over to see if the school was what she needed and wanted. "I couldnít believe the atmosphere. It felt like the sun came up! Everyone was talking to each other and smiling. For the first time in my life, teachers were my friends."
Alex had never done well in school. "Even in first grade 1 was making Cís, I just couldnít connect with the work. When I got to high school, I felt lost. Out of 2,000 students I only had two friends." He began skipping classes and failing miserably. Alex was waiting to turn I6 so he could drop out. About that time his dad read about SAIL in the newspaper and convinced him to give it a try. "It felt like home. I didnít have to become someone different when I went to school. I made friends and felt closer to people. I got to know myself better. We actually did things and talked about things in classes that seemed relevant. At the end of the semester I went to Mexico with my science teacher and twelve other students. I learned more in one week than Iíd learned all my years of schooling."
Sam lived in the projects with his mother and eight brothers and sisters. He was stabbed when he was fourteen and was lucky to have survived. He refused to ride the bus across town to the special education school, and after a while the school system quit trying to force him. He showed up at SAIL one day with his broad smile and his eagerness to learn. John, an English teacher, adopted him immediately. They began with the sports page after school that day and continued to read together for the next four years.
The local rock groupís name, "Hated Youth," reveals the way many teenagers view themselves: rejected, alienated, disrespected, power-less, rebellious, and alone. Many students branded as failures have gone through traumatic family malfunctions and live "on the edge." Some attempt suicide.
At SAIL we face these issues up front. We have to-weíve learned over and over that students simply will not and cannot learn nor take schooling seriously until they feel safe, accepted, and understood.
Since 1975 students like Maria, Alex, and Sam have escaped the labels of misfits and drop-outs because they found a school tailored to meet their social and emotional needs, as well as their learning styles. They were not "maladjusted," but, like many students, they did need a different approach to learning. Imagine the number of misfits weíd have in this country if everyone had to wear a size seven shoe!
The School for Applied Individualized Learning (SAIL) was founded on the belief that all students can learn and succeed when provided a calming environment that meets their needs and interest. SAILís name describes its purpose. It is a school that emphasizes applied individualized learning for students who have been unhappy or unsuccessful in larger, more traditional schools.
SAIL opened in February 1975 in Tallahassee, Florida. By 1981 SAIL had become the first public alternative school in Florida to be fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges & Schools. The accreditation committee wrote: "At SAIL there seems to be a cement of cooperation, respect, purpose, and dedication to the common mission. SAIL reminds us that public education can offer a caring alternative." (SACS Accreditation Report, 1981)
In September 1987 Floridaís Commissioner of Education presented SAIL the stateís first Award of Excellence. "SAIL is one of the premiere alternative education schools in the country," noted Commissioner Betty Castor while presenting the five-inch-tall prism mounted on a black marble base. "Itís a unique award for a unique school." (Tallahassee Democrat, September 15, 1987)
So, what is this public school of choice all about? What is it that compels parents to make statements like, "Iíd fight to the death to keep this school open - itís changed my childís life?í SAIL provides a flexible, personalized learning environment where 185 students, grades 9-12, work toward a Florida high school diploma. The program is structured to encourage development of positive self-concepts, inter-personal relationships, and democratic decision making. Experience-based classes are designed to help students make connections between academics and the real world.
All kinds of students choose SAIL. Any high school student whose talents, interests, or needs are not being met is eligible to apply for admission. We especially encourage students to enroll who have been unmotivated or unsuccessful in conventional schools. Ninety-eight per cent of our students meet state eligibility requirements for alternative education funding because of failing grades, attendance problems, low test scores, disciplinary reasons, or emotional problems. (Florida provides weighted funding of 1.67 for students in approved drop-out prevention programs who meet eligibility requirements.)
Occasionally, students without documented school problems prefer the flexible, individualized approach of SAIL and apply for admission. (Florida students who do not fit eligibility criteria as potential drop-outs may attend educational alternatives, but generate basic, rather than weighted funding.) For example, in 1986, the valedictorian and National Merit Scholar from one of the local high schools transferred to SAIL his Senior year. Neal felt that he had gone as far as he could in a conventional school. He wanted more flexibility to pursue his interests, so he transferred to SAIL to take advantage of the creative writing and performing arts programs. He also dually enrolled at Florida State University and took an advanced calculus class.
Of the 1986-87 graduating class of thirty-two students, eight were gifted (including two National Merit Scholars), four were learning-disabled, two were teenage mothers, and seventeen had previously been failing at other schools. While their abilities and talents ranged widely, they were all seeking a learning environment in which they could be accepted and succeed.
We believe that an open admissions policy is essential in an alternative school. All interested students must be able to choose whether or not they want to enroll in the school, and the staff must be able to decide whether or not the student should stay.
At SAIL one of our goals is to reflect the Leon district population. As in Leon County, twenty-three per cent of SAIL students are eligible for free or reduced lunches and fifty-one percent are female. However, in recent years SAILís minority population has fallen to nineteen per cent (eighteen per cent Black, one per cent Hispanic and other) as compared to the districtís high school minority population of thirty-two per cent.
Many factors contribute to this under-representation, including location in a very poor neighborhood. Probably most critical is the lack of understanding or acceptance of alternative education by many minority parents. Some parents and students fear that a diploma earned at an "alternative school" will be perceived as inferior to one from a conventional school. Some are not willing to take that risk. It is important to establish procedures to ensure that the alternative school population reflects the school districtís racial and economic composition as much as possible.
SAIL is like other public high schools in many ways. Students are provided transportation, media, and food services. Courses are taught by certified teachers, and students must master the same standards and outcomes as other high school students.
There are also differences. To become a student at SAIL, students, parents, or school personnel may call and put a studentís name on our waiting list. The waiting time is usually about one semester. As soon as an opening occurs, the student and parents come to the school for an interview and orientation session. The student then begins a five-day trial period to see if SAIL is the right choice. At the end of the trial period, the student, parent, and SAIL staff mutually decide whether or not continued enrollment is appropriate.
Ninety-nine per cent of the students who complete five-day trials want to stay and are accepted. Students may remain at SAIL as long as benefiting from the program. Since SAIL offers all of the courses required for a standard Florida diploma, students may choose to transfer credits and return back to the "home" school or stay until graduation.
When students enroll, they are not scheduled into classes by grade level but rather by skills and credit requirements. The required subjects in English, science, social studies, and mathematics are offered in levels ranging from fundamental to advanced. The average class size is 18 students. Frequently, several levels of a subject are taught within one class. In fact, within 77 class periods, 141 different courses were taught last year. Course offerings change each year to match studentsí needs and interests. Classes in art, drama, media productions, photography, creative writing, guitar, computer programming, driverís education, Spanish, and peer counseling have gradually filled up the elective roster.
Most students take seven classes a day at SAIL; however, some take specialized courses that we cannot offer (such as Latin or auto mechanics) at other local high schools, vo-tech schools, and colleges. Some students earn elective credits through our work-study program or in specially arranged apprenticeships in the community. Students may play sports at their home schools although most do not.
Classes at SAIL are active, lively, and, yes, sometimes noisy. Students are frequently out of their seats doing things and talking in groups. Teachers occasionally meet classes outside to discuss ideas and opinions with their students. Guest speakers and field trips are daily events. Parents have even been known to participate in classes.
Weíve found that academic success provides students the best encouragement for turning around their self-concepts and motivation toward school. So, we provide lots of opportunities for students to succeed. We have extensive awards ceremonies for academic achievement and improvement. Additionally, students who receive academic and conduct awards are treated to special lunches and field trips each six weeks.
A centerpiece of the educational program at SAIL is our applied learning approach. All classes incorporate experiential learning activities. This year, as part of the U.S. Constitutionís bicentennial celebration, SAlL social studies classes filled a time-capsule with objects that represented the Constitutionís meaning to them. Students wrote, produced, and videotaped enactments of Supreme court rulings that the staff, students, and parents agree that they are progressing and affected teenagers. They also included essays on book banning and the threat of nuclear war. The capsule was then ceremoniously buried at the site of the new state education building complete with speeches by dignitaries and a military band.
For the past five years, science classes have operated a catfish farm and greenhouse which were designed by math students and built by shop class students. When the first crop of catfish matured, we had a big fish fry and invited the parents, community, and media. We had a great time, and the students raised $600 for future field trips.
Performing arts provide many opportunities for students to apply what they learn. The SAIL dance class and the guitar ensemble regularly perform in local events such as the Harambee Black Cultural Arts Fertival and the Very Special Arts Festival for exceptional students. Last year SAIL students took first place awards in high school art and video production contests.
As part ofour community involvement efforts. all students participate in SAILís annual Outreach Programs. Students help weatherize houses in low-income neighborhoods, do projects for the handicapped, and participate in food and clothing drives for the needy.
Since our students come from many sections of town and are bused to SAIL, they usually cannot stay after school for extra curricular activities. So, instead, we have devised "Intensive Group" in which students and teachers plan projects and trips together for the end of each semester. Last year, intensive groups raised money and visited places of local interest such as hydro-electric plants and wildlife habitats, backpacked in North Carolina, encountered a very different culture in Jamaica, and explored Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. We do everything we can to incorporate learning within the context of group-building and adventure.
We know that students best learn and remember what they experience- 50 participatory classes and Intensives become great vehicles to accomplish several goals at once. For students like Alex, this trip to Mexico provided the opportunity to apply his coursework to an unforgettable experience. This approach has motivated many of our students to master course content in which they were previously not the least bit interested.
In order to ensure that personal and interpersonal concerns are addressed, all students attend a weekly class called "Family Group." There, teachers provide activities to help students get to know each other and learn how to work together cooperatively. Students learn counseling skills such as active listening and constructive criticism. They discuss topics including drug abuse, AIDS, divorce, alcoholism, etc. If a student is having a particular school or personal problem, the teacher and group members provide support and help.
For school governance issues, each family group elects one student to represent them in a weekly student government meeting with the principal. They discuss school rules and how to make the school better. Student representatives go back to their family groups to present ideas and vote on decisions. They plan field trips and attend staff meetings. They organize and run student forums where all interested students meet and discuss school concerns. Student government and family groups reinforce the idea that at SAIL we are family and that everyone has a say through a democratic process about what happens at school.
SAIL measures its success in many ways. Happy, successful students excited about the subjects they are learning are our best indicator that things are working. There is a constant waiting list of 1O0-150 students. Unlike most schools in Florida, SAIL has a very low suspension rate, no corporal punishment, and a low drop-out rate.
Studentsí attitudes about themselves and school improve dramatically after attending SAIL. Parents and visitors often notice that students who have been at SAIL for a while look at adults in the eye when they talk to them. In a pre/post study, only twenty-five per cent of our students reported positive feelings (comfortable, helped, successful, involved, challenged, and happy) before enrolling; yet eighty-three per cent of them reported positive feelings after attending SAIL for one semester or more. (SAIL Annual Report to Parenfs, 1985-86)
Angela showed me her honor roll certificate three times the day she received it:
"My momís never going to believe this, She used to hate to hear from the school because it always meant bad news. Sheís going to love this news!
In general, students make tremendous academic progress at SAIL. Like Angela, many, many of our students have gone from straight "Fís" prior to entering SAIL to the honor roll. Pre/post studies show that studentsí attendance rates, their grade point averages, and the number of credits they earn increase dramatically after attending SAIL for only one semester.
In 1986 SAIL tenth-grade students passed the Florida State Student Achievement Test, SSAT-II, with a ninety-four per cent passing rate, a rate greater than both the district and the state. On the nationally-normed Comprehensive Assessment Program test, SAIL students significantly exceeded the gain that was predicted for them by the district. In fact, in language and reading, they demonstrated four times more growth than their counterparts in the other high schools. (SAIL Annual Report to Parents, 1986-87)
Itís important for alternative programs to build in strategies for self-evaluation. Especially since we do things differently, we have found that we must be able to document that what weíre doing works. Test score gains as well as self-concept improvement, positive parent attitudes, attendance gains, grade point average improvement, and lower disciplinary rates are important measures for gaining credibility.
On the surface, SAIL looks much different than it did twelve years ago. Modern chairs have replaced bean-bags. Textbooks now haunt many of the classrooms. Classes have heat and air conditioning. Bells and intercoms remind students that classes have ended. Dozens of newspaper articles fill the bulletin boards telling the story of a school that wouldnít give up.
In 1975 a handful of teachers, a former school director, and the assistant superintendent got together and decided to start an alternative school. The school director had lived in California where many alternative schools existed and convinced local school officials that such a school would go in Tallahassee.
About that time, I began my first job as a teacher/counselor at the most prestigious high school in Tallahassee. In college, I had not been "trained" in a school of education. I had studied educational psycho-ogy and had interned and done research in a private free school and a womenís halfway house. My new job was called "Safe Schools Director." Apparently, I was supposed to keep the school safe from my students. I began counseling those having school problems and organized special classes and field trips. Most of these students would only come to my class. So, I began lengthening the class until it lasted the whole day. Trying to meet every childís needs by myself was impossible. Students ranged from non-readers to gifted, all in the same class. I began enrolling many of my students in the new alternative school.
It had become obvious that no matter what a few of us did in this large high school, a traditional approach was never going to work for these kids. It did not matter that this was the "best school in town;" it did not and never could meet their needs. They needed a totally different environment for learning. Fortunately, they had a choice. By the end of a frustrating year, I, too, decided that traditional high school was not for me. Like many, I considered pursuing a different career.
If I was going to be a teacher, I needed a smaller school where kidsí needs came first. I needed a collegial, supportive environment with elbow room to try out new ideas. If I fell on my face, I wanted encouragement to get up and try again. Fortunately, I had a choice. 1 began teaching art that summer at the Alternative Learning Center (ALC) and later was hired as a social studies/art/family group teacher.
The alternative school had gotten off to a rocky start. What the four high school principals wanted the school to be and what the ALC staff wanted it to be were very much at odds. The principals envisioned a school where they could send students who were causing trouble. The ALC staff wanted a school where students could attend by choice. The staff knew that they would serve many of the same disruptive students the principals wanted to be rid of, but they also know that it was important that the students make the decision to enroll. The ALC staff won that battle, and choice turned out to be a very critical element of the schoolís success. However, it caused much bitterness and resentment and made a good working relationship with the high schools very difficult for years. Disinterested but non-disruptive students were frequently counseled against going to the center. The students who were about to be dropped were the ones usually told of the school. The population was tough.
Additionally, no start-up money was provided for planning, staff development, or furnishing and upgrading the school facility. As a result, the staff met each morning before the students arrived and tried to figure out what to do next. We were building the bicycle while riding it--exciting, but also hazardous.
The newly-elected Superintendent did not support alternative education and spent the next three years trying to close the school. A battle was fought at the School Board and in the media over whether the school should continue or be closed. The saving grace was that the staff, parents, and the students believed in the school and had experienced so many positive changes in their lives that they were willing to fight to save the school. They did and they won.
It is critical that the concept of alternatives and choices have support from the Superintendent and the School Board. By that I mean philosophical support, financial support, and commitment to hiring a qualified staff. The groundwork must be laid to ensure that district policy-makers agree with the staff on the specific theme and vision for the school. It canít be seen as a dumping ground or a cure-all for the school systemís problems.
Adequate resources, staff development, and planning time are crucial ingredients. The staff must have the time and freedom to help develop the program from the ground up and to refine it as it evolves. In 1978 I became the principal. One of my first goals was to work on our public image. I know we were doing terrific things, but unless more people knew it, we were doomed. We succeeded by mounting a major public relations effort. We changed the name from the Alternative Learning Center to the School for Applied Individualized Learning, SAIL. We adopted a sailboat logo--Floridians love sailing--and did all that we could to create a positive image to describe what we were doing at this school.
For any alternative school, the name is important. It should help describe what the school is all about. School names should describe schools, not students, and let those themes and purposes attract natural constituencies. Thereís a very strong pull to label students when describing alternative schools. "Oh thatís the school for Special Ed kids," or "Thatís the school for drop-outs." Educators should not make that mistake. Imagine if the beverage industry advertised diet cola as the cola for fat people. Sales would plummet!
SAIL needed legitimacy, so we decided to become accredited. The two-year effort paid off. We received a glowing report from an accreditation team. They made statements like "This should be a model for all other alternative schools in the state." (SACS Accreditation Report, 1981) SAIL got the respected "stamp of approval" that it needed, and we made sure that the media covered it. Suddenly, people were saying, "Iíve been hearing great things about SAIL lately."
Weíve learned that in addition to working closely with the schools, to also take our message directly to the community. When doing something especially creative and positive, we call and make sure that we are featured in the local newspapers, television, and radio. Receiving positive media coverage is not difficult but does take on-going, deliberate action. It is nearly impossible to get too much good publicity!
Accreditation had additional benefits. Through much persistence on the part of the secondary schools director and myself, SAIL began to be recognized as the fifth high school. This mattered. It helped us gradually overcome our second-class status which had meant years of inadequate facilities, staff allocations, and operating budgets.
In addition, I was able to develop important personal relationships with the other principals meeting together and regularly discussing mutual district concerns and policies. Now, our school has the credibility and the opportunities to share successful practices that we have field tested. We are able to influence policies that foster success for all students.
In order to have real impact on the system, alternative schools cannot be islands unto themselves. Equal status to other schools is necessary. It is important that principals of conventional schools receive insights and hear suggestions from those working with students whose needs werenít met in their schools. Alternative schools should be laboratories for innovation. They can provide leadership. They are small enough to be able to test out ideas and share what works with the rest of the system. They have the flexibility to be creative and not get bogged down in bureaucracy. It is imperative that schools with these advantages influence policies and practices for the good of all.
SAIL works for many reasons. Staff is the key. We share a common vision and are dedicated to making school interesting, fun, and relevant for our students and ourselves. We see school as a place for students to discover their own talents and worth as human beings.
Over the years, with the help of students, parents, and teachers, we have carefully selected a talented, caring staff. Three-quarters hold advanced degrees in their fields. The staff is made up of a principal, thirteen full-time and six part-time teachers, a counselor, a part-time occupational specialist, a bookkeeper, a secretary, and two instructional assistants.
Teachers share responsibility for policy decisions concerning students, instruction, curriculum, discipline, and upcoming events. Problems are discussed, successful practices are shared, and decisions are made on a consensus basis at twice-weekly staff meetings.
Weíre not dragged down by the fragmentation and in-fighting that can go on in a large school. There are no major separations between students. teachers, and administrators. At SAIL, thereís no place to hide. There are no assistant principals, so teachers divide up responsibilities for student monitoring, discipline, and activities coordination. The principal frequently counsels students and always sponsors an Intensive. Everyone is needed and expected to help carry out the decisions that are made. Teachers help with scheduling. They get mini-bus driverís licenses to take students on field trips.
One way to tell that teachers are involved is to look at the sick leave records. Despite the exhausting nature of our jobs, the staff attendance rate is ninety-six per cent. Turnover is minimal; many have stayed on for ten or twelve years.
Like some other staff members, Cecelia left the conventional school setting:
"I waited for five years for a media specialist opening to occur at SAIL. At my former high school, I wasnít unhappy, but I knew a media center could be much more. I felt restricted. I had always wanted to teach some classes and get more involved with the students. But there was always so much red tape to cut through that I got discouraged.
As soon as I was hired at SAIL, I began teaching a media productions class. I rearranged the entire media center. The media center is used more here with only 185 students than my last high school with 1800 students!
The democratic way we run our school makes a big difference to me. At my other school, we had no opportunities for decision making. All policy decisions were handed down and it caused low morale. We didnít buy in. Many just did their job and nothing else.
Here I feel I can bring up any idea, and it will always be considered. Weíre small and flexible enough to try most anything. Here I can actually see the results of my work. It made the extra effort worth it."
Empowering teachers to help run a school makes the difference. It produces a professional, motivated team. Everyone feels part of something alive, dynamic, and on the cutting edge.
Alternative schools can be sanctuaries for creative, non-conformist teachers who love kids, love to teach, and have lots of energy, but feel suffocated in larger, more conventional schools. John, an English teacher, interned at SAIL nine years ago. After finishing his English degree, he managed a roofing company, waited tables, and returned to college for his Masterís degree in reading. He wanted to work with young people, but in his own way:
"When kids come here, they often feel different. Because of their learning styles, philosophy on life, their looks - whatever -theyíve been made to feel that somethingís wrong with them. They come here all bottled up. Here, they have room to find out what Ďwho I amí really means.
Teachers have opportunities to watch rapid growth once resistance begins to break down, especially in reading and writing skills. Sam is a perfect example. Since he was a so-called Ďslow learner,í he was shuttled off to a comer with a workbook. As long as he stayed quiet, everything was okay. When he got here, we believed in him. He did have a learning problem, but he decided that he didnít have to accept his limitations. He put in lots of work after school day-in and day-out. We read together and built vocabulary together. We went places together. He went on Intensives to Tennessee, North Carolina, South Florida, and Jamaica, all of which broadened his experience base so that he could relate to words in his new vocabulary. Heíd basically never been out of his own block before then.
Our experiential approach to learning is what gives our students a basis for internalizing what weíre teaching them. Giving students support and allowing them to discover who they are benefits students covering the whole range of abilities. For me, teaching at SAIL is not only a job, itís a human exchange. It functions less on a contractual level and more from the heart."
Jenny, a gifted student, had quit trying at her previous high school:
"My motivation was almost zero. I didnít understand why I had to do the assignments I was being asked to do; I had no input and I didnít enjoy it. I was just part of some big machine grinding things out. I didnít really feel like I was being educated. On the contrary, I felt like the only reason I was there was to get the school awards. I didnít like being in the gifted program because they were always laying pressures on us to get good grades and Ďmake the school proud.í I quit attending classes and, when I was punished, I really didnít care--either way, I wasnít happy.
After a while, though, I got tired of skipping classes and just sitting around: it really took a toll on me emotionally. I really did want an education. I didnít want to drop out.
On my first day at SAIL, we organized our own schedules. That really impressed me. At my other school, decisions like that were spit out by computers. I suddenly had more motivation to involve myself because the outcome depended on me. In classes, teachers didnít hound me about assignments. They made it clear that I could benefit or not--it was for me and it was my choice. Teachers took a personal interest in me, and I felt like a human being trying to further my education and less like a cog in a wheel.
I was criticized when I went to SAIL. People said, "SAIL is not the real world; youíre copping out." But for me, itís been just the opposite. Iíve been able to deal with certain limitations better now that Iím taking responsibility for myself. I have a broader view. I look for opportunities where I can make things better. and I more easily accept things I canít change."
There are students like Jenny at every school, craving meaningful involvement. At SAIL, students have real opportunities for input, for empowerment. The first step to gaining power is being able to choose a school. A second step is accepting responsibility for oneís own actions and education.
At SAIL, students help make the rules. Thatís a big part of empowerment. Students frequently are stricter on themselves than teachers are. Weíve had very few problems with students making rules as long as these rules stay within the School Board guidelines. When problems arise, we negotiate. The students made up a consequence called "pay backs." When students break a school rule such as disrupting a class, they get a "pay back" and have to serve 15 minutes of work detail after school. If students, for some reason, feel they were given the pay back unfairly, they have the right to a court appeal by a student-elected judge and jury.
This year I went to court and lost. A teacher told me that she had given pay backs to two students who were quarreling and shoving in her classroom. I decided that they should be suspended because of our "no fighting" rule. The students thought my decision was too harsh, so I encouraged them to appeal it. We had court with our student judge and jury (five students and one teacher). After hearing all of the evidence, the jury ruled that it wasnít really a fight and that the students should get "pay backs" for disrupting class. Their ruling stood. Suspension was revoked. While the appeal court isnít used very often, the fact that we respect students enough to allow them to help make decisions about discipline sends an important message: we mean it!
While students are treated with respect at SAIL and many of them begin to respond in kind, some students still donít make it. This isnít the right school for every student. Some students need more structure and discipline. Some need more help than we can provide. Sometimes students need to take a break from school altogether and come back when theyíre ready. But, even those who donít stay or donít make it, usually take responsibility for their actions. Having had opportunities to make some real decisions helped them realize more about themselves and gave them a better sense of where they were going next.
Small size is a major reason for our large success. Our personalized version of teaching and learning requires school and class size to be small. The staff must be large enough to cover the variety of curriculum needs, yet small enough to work together as a team. Itís helpful when the entire student body can attend functions and take trips as a group.
Our school size encourages closeness and support among ourselves and our students. For Jenny, it meant "lessening the fear of the unknown," interacting with people outside of her previous safe clique, and learning that other people had great qualities too.
We donít need a big bureaucracy with many layers; in fact, we work on keeping rules, procedures, and paperwork to a minimum. We experiment and try new things. If they donít work, we try something else. We adapt our schedule to take advantage of an unexpected local event or respond to a sudden school crisis. No problem!
Small classes allow for true, individualized instruction. The kinds of breakthroughs that were made with Maria, Sam, Alex, and the others would have been difficult in classes of thirty-five students. Although it is still a struggle to meet our studentsí wide range of social, emotional, and academic needs, teachers at least have a chance at succeeding. And often they do.
SAIL actively teaches cooperation and acceptance of others. "No put-downs" is one of the key rules of our school. Our informal atmosphere, our family group classes, and our constant emphasis on studentsí strengths build a climate of trust and safety. Personal relationships between teachers and students flourish. Ten percent of our students live on their own, and their teachers are frequently their only adult confidants and advisors. "Teachers treat me with respect and really care about me," are the responses most often given when students are asked whatís most important to them about SAIL. Students feel cared about as individuals, accepted for their uniqueness, assisted when they need it, and given space when they have to have it.
Traditional avenues for involvement in most schools are clubs, sports, and bands. These work because students become part of small support teams. Coaches and drama teachers keep track of "their" kids. That one extracurricular activity where students are involved with a teacher who cares about them makes a big difference; thatís why a lot of kids stay in school. We find that students who come to SAIL were rarely involved in extracurricular activities. Frequently, they felt left out and alienated. Because weíre a small school, students who might not have been noticed in a large crowd are suddenly needed and have opportunities to shine.
With almost no fights in years, no graffiti on the walls, and few discipline problems, we feel our efforts are clearly paying off. We know students feel they belong because they keep coming back. Seniors who graduated last year drop by all the time just to say "Hello." Students who graduated ten or twelve years ago still visit. Now they bring their children.
Probably our most difficult problem over the years has been trying to function within the public school system while staying true to our alternative education philosophy. We have definitely made compromises.
For instance, years ago we converted our non-graded, pass/fail system to the traditional A-B-C-D-F system so that schools would accept studentsí credits. Also, students and parents were so used to being "graded," they wanted this too!
We know that students donít necessarily learn best in predetermined, departmentalized time blocks. Yet, in order to receive full funding from the state, we have to offer seven, 50-minute periods a day. Sigh!
Our greatest struggle, however, is meshing student-centered, process-oriented teaching with standardized course performance requirements, and evaluation measures. Weíre working hard to make it work, but it continues to be a great challenge!
An alternative school must have as much autonomy and flexibility from the standardized curriculum and rules imposed on the conventional schools as possible. If breakthroughs in learning are to occur, the teachers need the freedom to develop innovative curriculum and try out new approaches that work for their students.
In order to make sure they understand the choice we offer, we strongly encourage all parents to visit SAIL with their child before enrolling. Once enrolled, we urge parents to get involved. We have a very active Parent-Teacher-Student Organization (PTSO). We frequently have a sixty to seventy per cent attendance at meetings. Parents raise money each year to provide Intensive Scholarships for students who otherwise canít afford to go on trips. They help select teaching staff, they provide refreshments for staff meetings, and they attend district advisory meetings. Attitude surveys reflect that parents are overwhelmingly supportive of this school. (SAIL Annual Reports to Parents: 1983-1987) The Superintendent never gets any complaints from parents about SAIL-a relief to any principal. The reasons are simple: parents actively chose this school and usually take more responsibility to make things work; they appreciate the increased individual attention their child is receiving; and parents know that, if they have a problem, they can come directly to the principal or the teachers for a conference and work things out. In fact, numerous parent, student, teacher conferences arc scheduled after school two days of every week.
Many parents feel that their relationship with their child changes dramatically after entering SAIL. Their child starts talking to them more, starts sharing things about school.
Nancy Smith, a new parent, called me at home the other night. I was relieved when I discovered that she had called just to thank me.
"Iíve seen more positive growth in my son in six weeks, than in a year and a half of intensive counseling. SAIL teachers are tuned into the language that Bryan speaks. Our relationship has improved. I used to try to pry things out of him about school, and heíd entered junior college. He still comes by every week just to say, "Hello." Sam, who needed more individualized help, got that help, graduated, and went on to a vo-tech school. Today, heís working for the city in a job with a secure future. He claims he never would have graduated if it hadnít been for SAIL; heís probably right.
Of the thirty-two graduates last year, sixty-six percent of them went on to college. Five received scholarships. Several went into the Navy. Several went to work. Several went to vo-tech school. But the most important thing that all of these students took with them was a real sense of who they are and what they can achieve. They left with the ability to look people in the eye and accept no limits for themselves. Thatís the real success of SAIL.
Currently, we have a choice system that operates in education. The wealthy send their children to private schools of their choice, selecting from a host of options ranging from military academies to free schools. The middle-class choose by buying a house in the zone that reportedly has the best school. The poor get whatís left.
Parents want choices. It is clear from many recent surveys and reports that parents want more say about which schools their children attend. When given the option, many are willing to wait in long lines to get them into magnet or other special schools. SAIL parents usually wait six months for their child to get into our school even though it is in the poorest neighborhood in Tallahassee. Why? Many parents will do most anything within their means to see that their children have opportunities to become happy and successful.
Students need more options. Young people are naturally curious; they want to learn, they want to succeed. Unfortunately, many times inquisitiveness and optimism begin to fade once students discover that they donít fit the conventional school mold.
We know that all people have different learning styles and preferences. Some learn best when they see or hear information; others must touch and experience before things really sink in. Some perform best in a quiet atmosphere with bright lights and straight-backchairs. Others prefer carpeted floors in dim-lit corners with head phones playing. Some have family, economic, and emotional concerns that must be dealt with before any kind of academic learning can occur.
One thing seems clear: all children deserve educational opportunities that encompass their individual needs while maximizing their talents and learning potential. Regrettably, for many, few options exist. In 1986-87 at least 40,000 students in Florida alone chose the most readily available option - they dropped out.
School systems need alternatives. Attempting to meet the vast array of student needs through one standardized approach is an impossible task that often reduces schools to "keeping the lid on." For the good of the whole, those who canít fit in simply must get out.
The facts that 124,000 Florida students in 1986-87 were suspended and 119,000 were corporally punished bear this out. When one out of every eight Florida ninth-graders is retained, and only sixty-three percent of them end up graduating, something is wrong.
Florida, like other states, has been searching for solutions. The 1978 Legislature passed the Alternative Education Act in an attempt to meet the needs of unsuccessful, disinterested, and disruptive students. However, most of the additional funding made available for creating alternatives was spent developing district in-school suspension, disciplinary, and remedial programs. SAIL was one of the few programs in the state designed as a student choice alternative funded by the Act.
The 1986 Dropout Prevention Act sought to remedy some of these problems. It required all districts to develop comprehensive drop-out prevention plans to separately address the areas of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, delinquency services, disciplinary problems, and educational alternatives. It discontinued weighed funding for in-school- suspension. The act encouraged development of schools of choice by allowing weighted funding for "at-risk" students and basic funding for other, non-targeted students.
It is critical that all students be eligible to attend alternative programs and schools of choice. As long as options are only available to those classified with special needs such as "at-risk" or "gifted-talented" the solution is an escape-valve approach for those most visible and vocal. A drop-out rate as high as fifty per cent in some parts of the country demands broader thinking. All students whose needs are not being met are "at-risk."
If choice works so well, why donít we have more? Fear of the unknown and fear of losing control appear to be the biggest barriers. Some school systems fear that if the door is opened, the public will rush in and take over; administrators will lose authority over the schools. I donít believe this fear is well founded.
Weíre a consumer-oriented society. Americans are used to shopping around, getting the best deal that they can, and then going about their business. Most people donít want to run General Motors. They just want General Motors to produce a good car, or theyíll go shopping at Honda or Toyota.
Of course, educators know that converting to a choice system would demand significant change. It would force school systems to confront new issues. When schools must attract their students for survival, they must become attractive. They would have to ensure equity and quality at every school. If not, certain schools would lose enrollment and go out of business.
Choice systems can vary widely. In the past, I always felt that there had to be a separate building for each small school like the one we have. I recently learned differently when I visited the District No. 4 alternative schools in East Harlem, New York. There I found sixteen very autonomous middle schools within four school buildings. They shared a common cafeteria, auditorium, and building principal. Teacher teams ran most of the programs. Each had a distinct theme and focus and had to attract its own students. Students seemed happy. I didnít see graffiti. I didnít see loitering in the halls. I saw happy kids on task. Some wore prep-school uniforms. Others work torn blue jeans. Enthusiastic teachers told me they felt empowered and excited. They knew they were making a difference for kids. Some were strict and orderly; others were hamming it up with their students. It was revealing to see schools where teaching styles and learning styles seemed to match.
A system of choices for all students demonstrates to the public that school officials are consumer oriented, that they want to meet every studentís needs. Willingness to create choices generates positive feelings in the community. It produces a climate for involvement and partnership. Having an alternative provides hope and empowerment for parents. It breaks down alienation and impersonalization. The message that a school system sends when it offers schools of choice is that a studentís poor performance or unhappiness in school isnít necessarily the childís fault. It reinforces what parents already know; in the right circumstance, their child can succeed. Offering choices is an acknowledgement by the school system that there is more than one way. Choice also motivates teachers. When empowered to make things work, they get involved.
The more quality choices a school system develops, the better. More choices allow schools to have a focus or a theme instead of an "all- purpose" curriculum that attempts to meet all needs with one approach. More choices means less stigma for those needing and wanting alternatives. The more choices we have, the fewer programs weíll need for problem students because fewer students will be exhibiting problems. Weíll have more students with "schools that fit."
Every state, depending on its needs and special circumstances, will have to come up with its own version of how to make choice work. But thereís no doubt about it--choice works.