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Advice for alternative schools
Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
Commitment over compliance is the key to operating an effective alternative school, according to a retired administrator who ran such a school in Oldham County for nine years.
“That heals a lot of ills,” said Dan Orman, who led a clinic session on alternative schools during KSBA’s annual conference.
Now a consultant for the Kentucky Center for School Safety, Orman said the commitment is found in an effective staff who can work with “tough kids.” When a school board delegates staffing decisions for alternative schools, he said it needs to keep in mind that an administrator who acts “like a bouncer” will not be able to provide what students need in terms of “relationship building and emotional safety.”
“To work with tough kids you’ve got to be gentle,” he said, while also avoiding what he called the “Hotel California” syndrome and ensuring safety.
When he first took the helm of Oldham County’s first alternative school, Orman said he took a hard-nosed stance, but learned that challenging the students to comply didn’t work. “I learned it’s not about what the kids are doing but what the teacher is doing,” he said.
Respect for the students is another key, according to Orman, but he noted, “that works both ways.”
School boards must decide what type of alternative program they want: a place where students are warehoused or a place where they can learn, he said, “because you have a community to answer to.”
In his case, the community was curious about the Buckner High Alternative School, so an open house was held, with the students themselves greeting visitors and giving tours. He said holding community events and having an open-door policy improved community perception of the school, an attitude that students picked up on.
Academically, it’s important to genuinely challenge students in an alternative setting so they have a real sense of accomplishment and not a false sense of self-esteem that “sets them up for failure,” Orman said.
Computer-based learning can be effective, “but what makes us think a kid with attention issues, with learning issues can sit in front of a computer?” he asked.
“It’s self-paced but it’s no pace if you want it to be no pace. Nobody’s challenging you and nobody is helping you,” Orman added. “We have to teach to different learning styles in these schools. We cannot put kids on a computer all day. That is educational suicide for those children and for anybody else connected to that school.”
The building itself that houses an alternative school is also significant in how the students view themselves. Orman urged boards not to place the program in the district’s least attractive building, filled with older or dilapidated furnishings and supplies that no one else wants.
“When you throw kids in a piece of crap facility, you’re telling them they’re not worthwhile,” he said.
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