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Why Do We Need Alternative Education? Prioritizing Student Needs and Personal Relationships to Lay the Foundation for Academic Progress

Why Do We Need Alternative Education? Prioritizing Student Needs and Personal Relationships to Lay the Foundation for Academic Progress

This post is written by Janie Ulmer, a member of the Edmentum Educator Network. The Network is a professional learning community dedicated to helping educators share ideas, learn from one another, and make genuine peer-to-peer connections.

When I graduated from college in 1989 and hired for my first teaching job, I thought I knew everything there was to know about lesson planning, quality instruction, and classroom management. I believed that I didn’t need a mentor because I already knew the secrets to student success, which was color-coded seating charts, bulletin boards with activities, and my own determination. 

The reality of the classroom

I envisioned my classroom full of students sitting quietly, taking notes in order to master very important skills like finding the missing sides of right triangles. And then, Day One happened. Students were not sitting in their seats, not listening attentively to my well-prepared lessons, and not working quietly during independent practice time. I had no idea where I went wrong or what to do next. My initial solution was to do more—create more charts, implement more programs and put more checkmarks on the board. But, things still did not improve.

I ended up focusing my energies on the students who were compliant because I just didn’t know what to do with those that weren’t. I was an effective teacher for students who knew how to “play school.” Disruptive students, though, were moved to the back of the room, then to the hall, and then to the dean’s office. As the school year went by, I came to realize that the farther away I moved these students, the more they shut down and refused to engage in their own learning. That realization was a huge wake-up call for me, and ever since, I have focused my attention and energy on those students who are not successful.   

Why are some students NOT successful in the traditional classroom?  

There is always a reason behind a student’s lack of academic progress. I may not always be able to identify it, but it is there. My experience has been that every student wants to learn and succeed; however, not every student has the right tools. Mental health concerns, teenage pregnancy, and minimal access to necessities like nutritious food and stable housing can all disrupt and derail a student’s educational plan. Often, this leads to students dropping out. However, schools can offer an alternative environment that addresses these areas of concern and then allows students to move forward and focus on academics and obtain a high school diploma. Alternative education, often stereotyped as the place where “bad kids go,” can actually be a service-focused school that addresses individual needs, provides access to community resources, and individualizes instruction so that students don’t fall through the cracks of the traditional learning environment.

Putting student needs first in alternative learning 

There are five areas of focus that my staff and I prioritize to support and empower students at our alternative learning program: student needs, individualized academic plans, school culture, relationships, and connection to community. Out of the five, meeting student needs is the most important! We know from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that meeting those basic human needs is critical before any learning can occur. Dr. Lori Desautels of Butler University tells us that essential physiological needs such as breathing, sleep, food, and water, as well as safety needs, both physical and emotional, must be satisfied before a human being can be open to learning. Thanks to small class sizes and a caring, knowledgeable staff, alternative programs are often able to identify roadblocks to learning and provide more support than traditional schools can.

At my program in Indiana, all students who enroll meet with a licensed social worker to identify areas of concern before an academic plan is created. We understand the critical importance of addressing student needs before we can focus on academics, and we partner with outside agencies to provide access to food banks, mental health supports, substance abuse therapists, and more to make sure that resources are available. Then, my staff does weekly check-ins to ensure that students have access to any and all support they need. By acknowledging roadblocks, connecting with community partners, and monitoring progress, only then can we hope to address learning gaps and credit deficiency. 

When identifying and meeting the needs of students come first, then we, as educators, are able to move noncompliant students out of the hallways and back into the classroom where the learning occurs.  

Looking for more resources to support your students in the classroom? Check out these five current trending issues in special education!

janie.ulmer's picture

Janie's journey to her current role as the Principal of The Academy, an alternative high school for Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Fishers, Indiana, includes experiences in middle schools, high schools, and adult education. The bulk of her career was spent at Kesling Middle School in La Porte, Indiana teaching mathematics to 7th graders. It was in this role that her future path was revealed. She was continually drawn to the kids that just seemed to fall through the cracks. Now, as the administrator of an alternative high school, she has the honor to work for these students every day! When I am not at school, she is the mom to two amazing children and a grandmother to a brilliant 7 month old grandson. I love watching college basketball, planting flowers in my garden, and treasure hunting at local resale shops.