Dan Orman has been an educator since 1982, and he spent almost 10 years as principal of Oldham County’s Buckner Alternative High School, which he helped found. He continued to work closely with the school as assistant superintendent for the Oldham County school district. After Orman retired in 2015, he began working for the Kentucky Center for School Safety and in September, he was named training coordinator there.
Q: Can you provide a brief history of alternative programs?
A. Alternative programs came about in the 1970s, but the number skyrocketed in the 1990s largely due to the spate of school shootings. There was a real surge in alternative programs when Governor (Paul) Patton signed the school safety law in 1998, four months after the Heath High School shooting.
Q. How have alternative programs changed in the years since you were at Buckner Alternative High School in Oldham County?
A. Once upon a time, an alternative school was a place to put people who were misbehaving and to harbor kids that some thought might be dangerous – to isolate behaviors. That is where it stopped. But instead of attacking the symptom – the acting-out behaviors – we have to work at the root of the problem, which is typically fear – something at home, some sort of fear that is causing the behavior issues. If we can get to the fear, we will be more effective than if we throw something at them like suspension, which is useless.
Many educators across the state are seeing a sharp increase in mental health issues. This has required a number of things. You have to have the talent as an educator to work through that – not to provide treatment but to realize how to recognize mental health issues and work through them. You have to have someone who can deal with insurance. Somebody in the district or school has to be able to navigate that system and work with parents.
Q. What is being done in some school districts to help alternative schools?
A. In Webster County, Matt Bell, the safe schools coordinator and director of pupil personnel, has carried the flag for alternative schools. He has worked with the community to bring mental health services to the students and alternative school. In Clinton County, you have Superintendent Charlotte Nasief and Director of Pupil Personnel Julie York, who have made their alternative school just as important as their high school. They work closely together and support those who work with kids and reach out to the community. It takes that kind of leadership.
Q. What other issues are alternative schools dealing with?
A. Schools are a reflection of society, and so we have seen huge increases in substance abuse.
Q. Is an increase in substance abuse causing more students to end up in alternative schools?
A. Absolutely. You ask a principal what happens when a kid gets caught bringing marijuana to school. The first line of defense is going to be to send the child to the alternative school. Sometimes a child caught trafficking drugs might end up there a year or longer. It varies by district and school.
Q. As far as classroom teaching and learning, what are the challenges in alternative schools?
A. The traditional way to look at an alternative school is like a jail. But for many kids, it is a family system that has nurtured them. Because these schools are smaller, it can be easier for an alternative school to build relationships with students. A child in an alternative school might find that “People call me by my first name,” and “I understand algebra for the first time.” In a big high school, it is hard for a teacher with a classload of 150 kids to make sure everyone understands a concept. I always thought that kids in alternative schools were going to want to get out as soon as possible, but some kids like it and they want to stay. That has financial implications. If we are going to fund alternative schools to get the biggest bang, we have to be willing to work with the students because if they don’t want to leave, they will find a way back. Why not work with students and the student’s family? Maybe they take a class or two at the regular high school and we wean them from alternative school, or maybe they stay at the alternative school and graduate.
Q. What are some other challenges?
A: Staffing is a big deal. Many people in education have written kids off by the time they reach an alternative school for a long-term stay. But we have a lot of really bright kids in alternative schools and lots of abilities to harness if we do that right. The challenges are financial.
For example, at Buckner, we once had a couple of kids who were sharp mathematically. They were there on drug charges. One kid had a 4.0; he was taking spiral trigonometry. We didn’t have anyone on staff who could teach that. Our superintendent let us hire a university professor to work part-time to teach these two kids spiral trigonometry.
Q. You’ve said these schools often get the dregs when it comes to physical plant needs.
A. Alternative schools often get the leftover tables with three legs and the chairs that don’t work anymore. There’s a saying in alternative schools: “If you give us a building, we will make it a school.” It really is more about the people than the bricks and mortar. But when kids walk in and they see a building with leaks in the ceiling and they’ve just come from a new high school, it doesn’t take long for them to get a pretty strong message that “I’m not as important now as I was yesterday.”
Q. How about technology?
A. They need updated computers, not the ones that the middle schools are done with. But there can be a lot of political pushback, people saying, “Why are we giving all those bad kids this money?” That is not a blanket statement, though. There are other communities that say, “These kids deserve everything that other kids get.”
Q. What are the qualities of a good alternative program?
A. When I came to Buckner, I didn’t know anything about alternative schools, but I did know about schools. I learned there is not a separate recipe for building an effective alternative school. It is about effective schools. To me, it is all about commitment over compliance. The magic of a good alternative school is an older person who is willing to work with a younger person who has trouble navigating the traditional path.
The two constants I see in an awesome alternative school are supportive top leadership – that would be the superintendent and board – and an effective alternative school leader.
Q. One school district recently split its alternative program into one for disciplinary problems and one for credit recovery. Is it more effective to do this?
A. All I can give you is a personal philosophy. I am not a real fan of this because the crossover is too heavy. When kids start failing in class, their behavior often goes bad. And, if their behavior is bad, then they start failing in their classes.
Q. What are some features that alternative schools need in order to be effective?
A. I am doing a session at the KSBA Winter Symposium on effective alternative schools. One piece is having a mental health professional. I think every school has to have access – not necessarily a mental health professional on staff – but access to one.
Q. What else?
A. A strong understanding of what substance abuse looks like also is critical in 2017. And you have to understand parents’ and caregivers’ frustrations. By the time their children have gotten to this point, parents have been called to school a lot and they have become negative in their thinking. Often they have knee-jerk reactions – I have almost never seen a parent who is not doing it out of love, but they may not be doing it right. There are parents who are angry, who make threats. Usually fear is fueling this anger. They are scared their child is not going to succeed in school.
Q. Does the Center for School Safety offer training aimed at alternative school staff?
A. What we don’t do is throw out a menu. We don’t presume to know what people want. What we can do is find people to train and create sessions for what they need. In the last couple of years, Jon Akers, the center’s director, has worked hard to put that out there for superintendents and pupil personnel directors. But I don’t think this training has been at the forefront in training needs. We haven’t had a lot of requests for it.
Q. Are you concerned that alternative schools could be in danger of being eliminated?
A. I am only concerned if it is an effective alternative school, one that is working for kids. I don’t see those being cut. When the superintendent and board see that the school is effective, I think the service is invaluable. If a school is not being effective, I have no problem with those programs being shut down today, then getting people in there who can run them effectively. I don’t have a commitment to alternative schools in general; I have a real commitment to effective alternative schools.
Q. So it is up to district leaders to determine effectiveness?
A. Yes. They have to know what the purpose of the alternative school is and if the purpose is being fulfilled. Also, are the alternative schools being good stewards of the tax dollars in their communities?