For me, alternate ed. is an encompassing term that includes specialized programs, outreach education, alternative programs, home education and individualized programming. Almost all of my teaching experience has been outside of the regular classroom, so alternate ed. is the heart of what I do. So what has kept me on the fringes of the education system?
It was/is just in my nature to be a helper for those who needed an extra boost. I remember visiting my grandparents farm as a little girl in the summers and I would always ‘adopt’ a brood hen chick that had a damaged wing or a hobbled leg and feed it and look after it. In grade three, I remember Gary R. punched out Bobby G. when the teacher was out of the room and Bobby’s nose bled like a faucet. I commanded Gary to sit on a chair, sent one of my friends to go get the teacher, told Bobby to stop crying and started piling kleenex on his face. Kirby D. was my partner in grades four and five. He was visually impaired and he sat with me so I could narrate for him. And it continued in various ways over the years.
In my early years of teaching, I taught an off-campus behavior program and a junior high special ed classroom in a small town. For the most part the kids had social/emotional concerns of one form or another. Their heads were wrapped up in a lot of trauma and/or disappointment. Their self-esteem was in the tank. These kids seemed to do a lot of dumb things that alienated themselves from their peers and other teachers. At the same time, they had some sorts of goals of what they wanted out of life and concerns for family, getting a job, and pursuing their interests even if their dreams were a little off the beaten path. Being in these specialized classrooms gave the students the support they needed during the times when they were a little ‘off’ and helped them each develop skills as they were ready. Each student’s educational journey is unique and it’s important to empower students so that they can achieve what they want for themselves.
In my 30’s I started to gain a broader perspective of life as I got married, started a family, started to think about where my tax money went wanting a sound society for my kids to grow up in, and, in general, became more observant of what was going on outside my own little world. At the same time, having more experience in teaching gave me the opportunity to see how the education system responded to students requiring a little more from ‘the system’ given their unique or unusual situations. By this time, I was a high school counselor and was helping to program for these students. Elite athletes needed time away from school for competition. Sick kids needed time to regain their health. Top end academic students needed opportunities to nurture their talents and flourish in their academic life. And there are plenty more examples. I have come to deeply believe that public education has an obligation to educate all students and this sometimes means unique programming is needed to meet the needs of students who are in unusual circumstances.
Most recently I have had the tremendous opportunity to become familiar with several models of home education. Families have stepped up to create a lifestyle for themselves that embraces the education of their children. For some families this is the means by which they are ensuring that their children are immersed in their family values. For travelling families portable programming allows them to educate their children both at home and away as our mobile society sees more people having the opportunity to travel for both work and pleasure. Some families have children with learning issues and are willing to adjust their whole family structure to support the child in a 1:1 setting that is rarely seen in the school system today. In all of these scenarios parents are able to create learning experiences tailored specifically to their children and their families. It’s a deeply personal experience for them. Personalizing education has the capability of providing a deeply meaningful experience that nurtures the interests and priorities of students and sometimes their families.
All of these priorities really come to the forefront for me on almost every intake that I do. Most of the time families come to an alternative school because they at the very least know they need something different than regular education and at the very worst have had a bad experience. I can’t tell you the number of times that parents have shared their relief in discovering that there is a viable educational option for their child/family. Education should be a hopeful endeavor.