Alternative Ed – One Way, Many Ways

CFL Logo - ColorConnections For Learning (CFL) is the alternative education site for Parkland School Division offering programming in grades 1 – 12.  We have just launched an updated web site which provides a great opportunity to write this post and share our great ideas and model for alternative education. It’s important to note that while CFL is the only alternative program site, Parkland does offer a variety of unique programs within various school settings.

CFL is actually a collection of programs.  The Adapted Learning and Living Skills (ALLS), Brightbank Academy, and High School Outreach programs are ‘directed placement’ programs that provide specialized support for students with identified learning needs, both academic and social/emotional. The Elementary Parent Partnership, High School Parent Partnership, Stony Creek, and Traditional Home Education  programs are ‘programs of choice’ which allow parents to become directly involved in their children’s education through three different models of home based programming. At times, CFL has also created individualized 1:1 programs for students with highly unique needs or circumstances. Where there are good fits, student programs have been developed offering counselling support, literacy support, and student leadership opportunities across the different programs.  As we know, students need to be proficient in their use of technology and CFL offers opportunities for students to learn and develop their technology skills to support their learning.

The common thread through all of CFL’s programming is to provide flexible and individualized programs for all students. This occurs in a variety of ways.  Academically, several of the programs use modules-based learning, and we have amassed a collection of supplementary materials and strategies to assist with differentiation when needed. While the modules system does offer much flexibility and allows for independent completion, there are limitations with engagement and instructional variation. CFL also partners with the Alberta Distance Learning Center to contract courses, typically high school option courses, to broaden course offerings for students. In part-time programs, the academic component is directed by teachers who differentiate for students as needed given the nature of the students in the classroom.  And for home programs, parents are supported in tailoring their instruction to meet their children’s academic levels.

The individualization continues. CFL’s directed placement programs primarily serve students with behavioral concerns and the flexible and well supported classroom environments allow for the creation of routines and processes that address situations where students are behaving inappropriately.  Staff members respond positively and consistently to allow students to learn to shape their own behavior and at times provide direct instruction for students to reflect on their behavior and develop strategies for self-regulation.  Additionally, a number of families have elected to enroll their children in home school programs as a means of supporting their emotional or behavioral struggles, like anxiety or ADHD.  By providing a nurturing learning environment, where they are loved unconditionally, children are able to make great academic gains in their homes when they were struggling with the social and environmental pressures in the school setting.

One opportunity that home education provides is the freedom for differentiation in regard to values based instruction. CFL’s home education programs have different structures regarding which subjects parents instruct and how they are supported. In some programs parents have the freedom to select resources and learning activities that are outside of Alberta curriculum and are values based. In all of CFL’s home based programs parents deliver the health curriculum and are very involved in option programming. This provides a beautiful opportunity for families to spend time together discussing and learning what is truly important for them in regard to their worldview and values. Each family does it differently but it’s powerful learning for their children.  It is common for families to develop projects to teach the children about key family activities. As an example, an outfitter family created wildlife projects for their children. Other examples include using scripture verses for handwriting practice, Bible study, service projects – both locally and internationally, cultural activities, joining community activities (sports, theater, Scouts, etc.), church activities, travel, learning activities together (technology, photography, scrapbooking, etc.), family history projects, and more.

One of the elements that contributes significantly to the relaxed, casual, and welcoming environment at CFL is the actual building itself. The building originally housed a health club but has since been renovated. There are nine classrooms that are on either end of the building allowing for some separation between programs which works quite well as there are differences in operations and the nature of the students. The one ancillary classroom does not have a smartboard, but the other eight do.  One of the squash courts from the health club was saved to create a mini-gym which is handy for our small elementary classes and some small group activities for older students. A kitchen was built about a year ago which allows for some option programming and job/life skills development. The Outreach classroom is located where the locker rooms used to be so there are several small breakout rooms and a conference room which easily allow students to isolate themselves when they are out of sorts or provide a location for small group instruction.

Now I am sure that you realize that there are a pretty special group of people working at CFL. The CFL staff are experts at forming relationships with students and parents, even the most difficult ones.  Each of them has the ability to intuitively read their students to know when something is different and has a gentle and authentic way of interacting with students to get to the root of an issue. The nature of alternative ed. requires adaptability as the structure of most of the programming has a basis in flexible delivery. As well, the nature of alternative ed. families who are seeking something inherently different and at-risk students who’s stories can sometimes change on a daily basis need people who can be accommodating and inventive in their approach to education. The teachers in our home based programs have particular skill in relating with parents and usually play more of a coaching role when assisting parents in developing and delivering their children’s programs. Finally, organizational and data management skills are critical given the wide variety of small details that are different between student programs and the individualized pace at which students work. It’s a tracking nightmare sometimes.

Connections For Learning is also set up as a service provider to the rest of the schools in Parkland School Division.  When school personnel realize that they have a student who is unable to be successful in the school setting or can no longer be served within the building, an administrator will contact CFL to discuss programming options. Some examples of the students that have been served include students going on extended holidays, students struggling with health concerns and can no longer attend school, those suffering from toxic social relationships, etc. Some of the ways that CFL will support schools are to fully take over programming for the student and actually transfer registration, offering temporary programming for a portion of the school year, lending our modules materials for the school to use temporarily to cover a particular situation, or just brainstorming regarding possible solutions for the student. Other than the brainstorming option, CFL charges a fee to the sending school for any services provided after September 30 registrations are finalized. These ‘transfer of funds’ are determined on a pro-rated basis and then submitted to division office for the transfer to occur and are part of the budgeted money that keeps CFL operational.

While life at CFL is pretty darn good most of the time, it`s not always rainbows and roses.  There are challenges. One of the first is the inconsistency in budgeting which is directly tied to transiency in enrollment. Conservative budgeting is required, as with many alternative sites, but there is a strong commitment to the need for the existence of CFL by Parkland School Division which has subsidized particular programs or projects on occasion.  Along with transient enrollment sometimes comes skewed enrollment with some programs bursting some years and others being under subscribed. Several of our teachers are part-time teachers who will sometimes have their FTE increased during the year to support additional enrollment. Professional development is interesting in that CFL is expected to participate in all of the division initiatives, like AISI. As these initiatives are designed for the regular classroom, CFL staff members have become accustomed to having ‘the meeting after the meeting’ to discuss how the ideas presented at a PD session can be tailored for part-time and or modules-based programming. That said, there is plenty of specific PD out there to support alternative programs.  Engagement is an issue for the programs that rely on modules-based programming as it is dry and boring to say the least. Over the years we have added workshops to support students with some face to face assistance and learning activities. Currently, we are looking toward online resources as a means of engaging those who attend both on-site and off. It is also important that CFL operates as a respectful place across all of our programs because we have a great spectrum of families/students in our programs, from those with quite liberal values to those with very conservative values.  When there have been incidents where behaviors, values, and judgments have clashed, that foundation of respect for all has brought clarity to all involved.

So if you think your school community needs a version of CFL, here are some suggestions.  Try to gather together a combination of forward thinking leaders at the division level with grassroots people committed to alternative education. It’s important to have honest reflective conversations regarding the students who are not being well served, what they would need to be successful and how to tap into the unique talents that exist among your educators along with innovation opportunities. As well, there is a thriving network of home educators out there, both formal and informal, some of whom are fully committed to remaining apart from the school system and some of whom are looking for innovative partnerships. Tapping into this group of parent educators would be most helpful. Alberta Education is supportive of school choice and with some research and a willingness to be innovative and responsive, program development will happen. Both the Alternative Programs Handbook and Outreach Program Handbook contain checklists for decision making and program development which are great starting points. This is truly hopeful education and I wish you well on your journey should you choose to take it.

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