college of education | fall 2001

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Chris Dunbar Paints Painful Portrait of Students in Alternative Schools

In his new book, Chris Dunbar, Jr. describes a desolate and almost surreal corner of the educational system, a place strewn with damaged young lives where on any given morning a police officer shows up at school intent on arresting a student.

If not an arrest, then a fight or some heated confrontation erupts and profanity is so prevalent as to seem normal. All this takes place before 8 a.m.

In class, Dunbar writes, the students “sit in front of you with a disgruntled look on their faces that says, ‘I’d rather be somewhere else, or ‘What does this fool want?’ The ‘fool’ they are referring to is, of course, you—the teacher, principal, or any adult that appears to have already passed judgment on who they think you are and what they think you are about.”

The scenario Dunbar describes is not some Dickensian poorhouse or orphanage, but the contemporary American alternative school.

“The alternative school has been sold as a bill of goods,” says Dunbar, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration. “We’re told that because of its smaller size, the school is going to provide more attention and that students’ individual needs are going to be better met.

“But in many instances—in too many instances—that just isn’t the case. It’s become a place where you just get rid of kids who don’t conform.”

The world of alternative education is one Dunbar knows well. He taught at an alternative school in South Central Los Angeles for four years, and then spent more than a year doing research and getting to know the students and faculty at an alternative middle school while a doctoral student. It was his experience at the alternative middle school that makes up the narrative of his book, Alternative Schooling for African American Youth: Does Anyone Know We’re Here (Peter Lang, 2001).

Although alternative schools are nothing new (they date to the 1920s), Dunbar says by the 1980s the schools had devolved into a warehouse for incorrigible students, a kind of dumping ground where the school system could dispose of youths it couldn’t handle—mostly African American and Latino.

For the most part, students in alternative schools are those who have been expelled or labeled academic failures, social misfits, or emotionally unstable. Many of the students that Dunbar writes about do not come from traditional nuclear families. Many of them are in foster care, or living with a relative. Others have been shuffled from one place to another, and all of them have developed a tough, coarsened outer layer that belies their age.

“We have to remember that these are children. But these are children who have been told again and again ‘You are not wanted,’ by the school and the parents, and by society in general. They are just discarded to these alternative settings, and at some of these schools if you simply behave that is enough.”

To Dunbar, the idea verges on the ludicrous. What do we expect, he asks, when we place in one classroom or school some of the most troubled students and ask them to behave and learn together. The last thing a student wants to achieve in that environment is the gold star for good behavior. “The first thing on their minds is ‘Okay, now I have to fit into this space where there are a whole lot of kids who are tougher than me. I have to let them know I’m tough.’”

Dunbar also finds that there is little alternative in alternative schools. Dunbar notes in his book that the middle school used old textbooks discarded by the regular schools. He also finds that the way teachers taught did not change substantially.

The school system was teaching its most troubled students the same things in much the same way as its regular students. “It makes absolutely no sense.”

Chris Dunbar

His analysis has led Dunbar to call for a series of changes that would make the schools more conducive to helping troubled students.

The first issue is one of perception. Dunbar says that school systems must change their view of the alternative school as a kind of penal colony where “bad” kids can be isolated. Teachers must not use the alternative school as threat against a disruptive student.

Instead, Dunbar believes that a team of highly skilled professionals from the school and community should work together to determine how best to help the troubled student. That might involve sending the student to an alternative school, or providing some other type of assistance or educational opportunity.

In every case, however, Dunbar is convinced that a plan must be devised by the educators that stipulates how the alternative to the traditional school is going to help the student.

Dunbar also calls for these schools to be transformed into true alternatives. That could encompass any number of things: one-on-one instruction for part of the day, different hours of the school day, different locations for the school, etc.

Finally, he calls on teachers and administrators at these schools to get to know and understand the students. One obvious reason for this, Dunbar says, is that it is extremely difficult to help the students if you don’t know what is wrong in their lives.

But there is also the element of caring. The students know instantly whether a teacher cares about them, and it can make a profound difference in their lives.

“Knowing that when they come to this school there is someone there for those five or six hours who cares about their well-being can be tremendous,” he says. “They come with a great deal of distrust. Nothing can be done to them. They’ve been incarcerated. But if a teacher cares enough to get to know them, and cares about having them bring in their homework, and get their schoolwork done, that is crucial.”

Dunbar sees a glimmer of hope in charter schools. With its growth as a grassroots movement in a number of African American communities, Dunbar believes it is possible that charter schools tailored to the students in alternative schools might be a positive force in the future.

It is the next phase of his research. He is putting together a study to examine what charter schools are doing that might be able to benefit this population of students.

For Dunbar, the research and writing has been a painful personal journey into the lives of children whose anguish is evident just below the surface of their tough exteriors. Something, he says, has to be done because the current system of alternative schooling is deeply flawed.

“Some help and some understanding may well make the difference between someone who winds up incarcerated or someone who goes on to get a high school diploma, or at least someone who, when put in a critical position of doing the right or the wrong thing, will opt to do the right thing,” Dunbar says. “As a teacher, you always hope that something will be triggered and they’ll do the right thing. We have to provide these kids an alternative, a true alternative, and an opportunity in life.

“That’s the right thing to do.”

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