How Alternative Schooling Better Serves Diverse Students
As a neurodiverse parent of two neurodiverse children, I know the current system is not designed to serve my multi-ethnic family or others like ours. I’ve listened to countless parents recount the abuse their children have suffered in public school systems — from racism to ableism to homophobia — and their regrets for not doing something sooner. That something is the alternative school.
We see pressure for schools to be more inclusive, but from what I’ve heard from students and their families, it’s not enough. LGBTQ students, students of color, and students with disabilities are disadvantaged in the current system.
Since 2020, public schools have lost more than 1.2 million students. Chronic absenteeism is on the rise, and students of color tend to be disproportionately represented in a multitude of statistics. The public education system also has various barriers for neurodivergent students and those with physical disabilities. Students with disabilities graduate at a rate of 17.5 percentage points lower than those without disabilities.
A magnifying glass was also placed on the state of mental health of the students. During COVID-19, “44% [of students] said they constantly felt sad or hopeless“, reports the CDC. LGBTQ students had worse rates of suicide, poor mental health, and abuse than their peers. The CDC study also captured the serious racist undertones that many students felt at school, especially black students. In contrast, students who made meaningful connections between their classmates and teachers at school were significantly less likely to report lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness than students who did not make such connections ( 35% versus 53%)..
It’s time to switch to the alternative school
After years of patiently waiting for our school systems to evolve, a group of educators, including myself, set out to create an alternative school suitable for all students, especially those excluded from the traditional school system. systematically.
The alternative school gives students a choice. We’re not talking about those horrible, punitive schools for students with “bad behavior.” We are talking about a school that creates a culture of inclusivity from its inception. A school that understands that learning begins with the well-being of the student. A school whose educators defend the individual interests of the students and respond to their needs.
We’re talking about educators who know that the students some schools label as having “discipline problems” are often, in reality, just independent thinkers with strong convictions, not mistakes. This is taken up in Christopher Edmin’s book, “Ratchetdemic: reimagining academic success”, where he explains how many black students are forced to align themselves with ideals of white respectability to be considered good students. Too often, students are forced to strip away their personality or appearance – be it hair color, hairstyle, clothing, or emotions – to be seen as acceptable students.
It doesn’t have to be that way
My colleagues and I are passionate about dismantling the traditional system and starting afresh. A new framework is essential. Educators should champion student individuality, create a culture of belonging, listen to and respond to student wants and needs, and, most importantly, view student mental health not as an afterthought, but as part of integral to their success.
It may seem like a lofty goal, but it’s 100% possible. Common Montessori, Waldorf schools, cooperative learning and Sudbury schools are examples of alternative schools. Each is different, as are two schools, but one similarity between them is their emphasis on students having agency in their learning.
What regular schools can do now
Our Leaving Matters — Today’s Students can’t wait for a wholesale makeover of public school – but we recognize that there are not enough schools like ours. Right now, however, all American schools can take several steps to become better and safer places for all students:
- Focus on making meaningful connections with students and families.
- Hire highly qualified teachers who reflect the students they serve.
- Make the curriculum personally meaningful and culturally relevant.
- Decolonize the curriculum.
- Actively work to be anti-racist.
As soon as possible, however, we would like see more schools like ours empower parents and students to create an educational experience that disrupts the negative legacy of the traditional education system.
Robin Harwick, Ph.D., is an author, researcher and consultant. Harwick is the founder and director of The Pearl Distance Democratic Schoola home schooling alternative school for high school students, and is also one of the teachers.
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