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Top Educator Finds Alternatives to Failure

Joris Ray, director of the Memphis City Schools alternative schools, believes that helping students achieve academic success leads to confidence and better behavior. That dedication helped earn him ASCDs 2007 Outstanding Young Educator Award. Included: Description of an alternative school program.

The motto of the Memphis (Tennessee) City School District Alternative Schools Program -- Where we encourage students to dream, stand, believe, and achieve with courage! is one that alternative schools director Joris Ray embraces and on which he models his schools. The vision of the alternative schools, according to the program, is to reform student behavior and increase academic achievement. The focus is on educating the whole child through positive school experiences.

Rays dedication to students in the alternative schools earned him the 2007 Outstanding Young Educator Award (OYEA) from the Association of School Curriculum Development (ASCD) . Ray received his award at the ASCDs annual conference.

In accepting the award, Ray cited the contributions of caring administrators, teachers, and support people in making the alternative program successful.

He also said that alternative schools deserve more recognition from the education community. We want alternative programs to get the respect of International Baccalaureate (IB) and magnet programs because these are the neediest students, he told the audience at the ASCD conference. We see them [alternative-school students] not as they are, but what they could be. We see all our students as diamonds that we polish until they shine.

The Memphis alternative schools program has three levels: Alternative, Success, and Choice schools. The eight Alternative schools serve students who committed zero-tolerance infractions such as weapons possession, involvement with illegal drugs, and assault. The five Success schools enroll students with academic and social deficits, and the three Choice schools are for students who need smaller learning environments.

Students enroll in alternative schools daily, and usually stay in the program between 90 and 180 days, according to Ray. The program seeks to turn around students school performance and behavior through the efforts of educators, behaviorists, parents, and the community and return them to their home schools.

Ray plans to use part of the $10,000 award he received from ASCD to start the Ray of Hope scholarship fund for alternative-school students.

He talked with Education World about his approach and his goals for his students.

Jennifer Stepanek
Joris Ray (Photo courtesy of ASCD)
Education World: What are your priorities as an educator?

Joris Ray: My core philosophy is that academic success changes behavior. Giving students a glimpse of academic success raises their self-esteem and awareness of their future potential.

EW: What are the goals of the alternative school program?

Ray: The goal of the alternative schools program is for every student to gain a wealth of emotional and academic intelligence from highly qualified teachers and staff. These skills will prepare students to become productive citizens in our society. The indicators of success include: improved academic performance, increased school attendance, increased positive student behaviors, and decreased serious disciplinary offenses in schools.

EW: What do you find most rewarding about your job? Most challenging?

"When the students eyes widen and their faces light up, I know I got them. It captured me then and continues to capture me now!
Ray: The most rewarding aspect about my job is watching the students confidence build and see them put forth an effective effort to complete assignments. It has always been my belief that successful academics performance changes behavior. When the students eyes widen and their faces light up, I know I got them. It captured me then and continues to capture me now!

The most challenging aspect of my job is finding the quality time for my family. I work non-stop, but I enjoy it. However, my tragic flaw is not taking time and smelling the roses along the way.

EW: How have alternative programs changed over the past decade?

Ray: Alternative schools have evolved over the past decade into comprehensive, holistic learning environments that are designed to meet the total needs of students. School intervention goes beyond behavior management and reform. Alternative schools also emphasize quality instruction, positive school experiences, and parental involvement in a non-traditional educational environment.

EW: What are the key elements of a quality alternative program?

Ray: Key elements are:
Academics: Quality instruction with highly qualified and certified teachers in content areas that includes cooperative learning, differentiated instruction, as well as curriculum mapping and smaller pupil/teacher ratios (15 to 1). Behavior Management: This includes structured behavior management programs with levels, as well as daily life skills teaching. Also, programs should provide community service/service learning project to integrate real-life positive experiences with life skills and behavior management education. Parental Involvement: Provide programs which promote personal and parental growth. Programs include Family Night Support Program, Training Intervention For Parents (TIPS) through the Family Exchange Club, Parents Skills Session. Service Learning: Combines academic and real-life work skills through volunteer community service. Participating agencies have included Memphis Botanic Gardens, Memphis Zoo, Childrens Museum, and Habitat for Humanity.

EW: When a student exits the alternative program, what do you want he/ she to have learned?

"We want our students to believe that the districts motto of Every Child. Every Day. College Bound. is attainable for them if they continue to apply the skills learned through our program.

Ray: Students who successfully complete the alternative schools program have learned to achieve to their greatest potential through improved academic and behavior performance. We want students to realize that they can display positive academic and behavior characteristics that will allow them to accomplish any goal in life. We want our students to believe that the districts motto of Every Child. Every Day. College Bound. is attainable for them if they continue to apply the skills learned through our program.

This e-interview with Joris Ray is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Published 05/16/2007