Sometimes it becomes clear to teachers and to me that a particular student stands a better chance of success in an alternative education setting; in such a setting, the student might thrive. Sharing our thoughts about alternative education with the student and parents requires special handling, however.
Let's face it -- all students are not alike. As educators, we must recognize that alternative education might be appropriate for some of the students we counsel. "Alternative education" has many meanings and can serve many different kinds of students. Alternative ed can refer to a magnet program to challenge gifted minds; a vocational program to train master tradesman; a junior college to allow students to move more quickly toward a career selection; a school students with special circumstances can attend only part of the day; a Pre-GED and GED school to help those who cannot pass state graduation requirements; adult education for those returning to complete interrupted educations; "redirectional" schools for those who cannot abide by traditional rules and/or laws...
As principal, part of my job is to keep up with changes and additions to alternative programs within our system and in nearby systems so I can knowledgeably counsel students and parents about those opportunities. When a student's teacher, counselor, and I agree that alternative education is most appropriate for a student, the first thing I do is call the student into my office. I try to discern how the student feels about the possibility of alternative education. If I get a favorable reaction, I take the next step and plan a conference with the student and his or her parent(s).
When the parents arrive for the conference, I discuss with them and with the student some of the available options. The student's guidance counselor usually is present; he or she brings literature, phone numbers, and the names of contact people at appropriate alternative education sites. We speak to parents personally, in the way we would like to be addressed about our own children. Respect goes a long way, and parents and student usually need some reassuring words at this point; we try to assure all of them that the student can succeed in an appropriate alternative program. We present all the facts at our disposal that point to the student's likelihood for success.
If the parents are not available to meet with us or if they seem resistant to coming to school for a conference, we arrange a home visit so we can share the necessary information with them.
If we are unable to make our case -- if the parents do not agree with our recommendation and choose to keep the student in his or her current school setting -- we honor their decision. We also try, however, to reach an agreement with the parents that we all will monitor the student closely in the weeks and months ahead, and that we will be willing to reopen the discussion if the student seems frustrated or if his or her grades appear to be suffering.
I've found that a straightforward, honest approach works best in those kinds of situations. I try to emphasize to parents that all children are different; that each child requires a special plan. That seems to make many parents feel more comfortable.
Through the years, I've been questioned by our state's department of education about our school's low dropout rates. I could always show the agency which programs our students had transferred to, were presently enrolled in, or had completed.
Education is like an assortment of shoes: one size or style does not fit all. As educators, we must address the needs of all students, and in today's society those needs are as diverse as they can be.
About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.