The Healthy Side of Exhaustion
by Dave Lehman, principal of
The Alternative Community School of Ithaca
Talk given at John Taylor Gatto's "The Exhausted School"
program in Carnegie Hall, NYC 

 

Ours is not an "exhausted school"! Our school is alive and well, growing and changing. There are two kinds of "exhaustion" here - one is the exhaustion of defeat, discouragement, and despair, of frustrating, unsuccessful, unrewarded efforts; the exhaustion of a totally worn-out building in which little works, where there are holes in the ceiling, broken windows, unrepairable plumbing, and faulty furnaces - indeed exhaustion. Then there is a second kind of "exhaustion" - that deep feeling of satisfaction after the successful completion of a challenge, of a job well done at the end of a full expenditure of one's total energies and commitment; it is the exhaustion of the athlete at the end of the event; it is the feeling at the end of class when you know there was real learning going on! It is this second kind of exhaustion that I feel, and that our staff often feels. So let me tell you something about our school, about the Alternative Community School of Ithaca, New York - a public middle school and high school.

In our eighteenth year as a public school of choice, we serve the whole School District of Ithaca, which is the most diverse upstate community outside of the big cities of Binghamton, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. While working with students whose parents are employed at Cornell University and Ithaca College, we also serve a 155 square mile rural population, being the northern most county of Appalachia; and we have an approximately equal representation of students from our school district's 20 percent minority population of Afro-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and others. In addition, 10 percent of our students are officially classified as "Learning Disabled or Emotionally Disturbed", and another 15 to 25 percent each year are identified as "PSEN", Pupils with Special Education Needs, being behind in one or more basic skill areas by at least a year. Students freely apply to ACS and are admitted from our waiting list as soon as room becomes available by means of a lottery drawing from our different applicant pools to assure we maintain our diversity. As a public school we are funded at the same basic per pupil cost as the two other middle schools and the central high school in Ithaca. Thus, we are staffed based on the same basic district-wide formula of one full-time teacher equivalent for every 18.65 students. (Those .65 students are the ones that seem hardest to work with, though - they never quite seem to be all there!)

Now, with that quick background about our school district and our student population, let me describe what it is that these students have chosen in coming to ACS, the kinds of reforms and changes that we have made at the Alternative Community School, because I want you to know that schools - indeed public schools - can be different; they can be changed; there are other ways of doing school that can be highly successful!! I would highlight three key features that make ACS a genuine alternative, a real choice for sixth through twelfth graders in Ithaca.

First, we are a democratically run school, a laboratory in civics where students and staff (and to the degree that their time permits - parents) are directly and regularly involved in the day-to-day decision-making of running our school. For example, some two years ago a proposal came before our weekly All School Town Meeting - which incidentally is run by our student Agenda Committee - that "community service" become a graduation requirement, and our total student body and staff, after much discussion, overwhelmingly voted their approval for a minimum of 30 hours of community service becoming a new graduation requirement. I suggest that is real shared decision-making, a real sharing of power.

Secondly, we strive to personalize education at ACS, to work with each student holistically, not just with their intellectual abilities and difficulties, but their emotional, social, and physical selves as well; to get to know, to work and play, to laugh and cry with them as total human beings, to take them seriously for who they are. Here we have used our resources to develop an average class size of 16 to foster this kind of personalization and have created "Family Groups" of about 12 students each with one teacher, where that teacher meets at least twice a week with the whole group, serving as their advisor, their advocate, their facilitator of interpersonal growth, and the main contact with their parents.

Thirdly, we have developed a program and a curriculum which has five major options by which students may learn, recognizing what works for one student doesn't always work for another. One, there are "classes or courses", both for our middle school and our high school students, which meet four times per week, either for a single 45-minute period or for a double period, often interdisciplinary, as in English and social studies for courses in Facing History or Medieval Times. These classes may be for just one nine-week cycle as is typical of our middle school, or semester or year-long in our high school program, and they are more relevant, not from a State syllabus, but developed by the teachers with their students, such as a course last winter on the "Persian Gulf War." Two, we have "Extended Project" blocks in our weekly schedule, all Tuesday afternoons and all Thursday mornings to do different kinds of things that work well in longer time blocks of an hour and 15 minutes to three and half hours, such as "Creative Writing" out in the greater Ithaca community, computer programming, ceramics, ice skating, video production, bicycling, or "Outing Challenge", an Outward Bound type of program done cooperatively with staff from our local Youth Bureau. Three, is our "Community Studies Program" in which students are placed individually with adults in various businesses, social agencies, or college departments, "learning by doing" either as career exploration experiences or for actual academic credit. For example, a young sev-enth grade girl who thinks she would like to become a veterinarian has a community placement with a local veterinarian -- and incidentally may learn that she hates the sight of blood and doesn't want to become a vet - certainly less costly than discovering that after the first year of grad school! Or a high school junior learning bookkeeping and accounting for math credit through a cooperative arrangement between one of our math teachers, our Coordinator of Community Studies, and a staff member at a local Credit Union. Four, students, even sixth-graders!, have the opportunity to do "Independent Studies", one-on-one with a teacher to explore in depth a subject of keen personal interest. Such studies may result not only in a research paper, but a videotape, or a play, a laboratory or field experiment, a photographic essay, or any one of a number of other ways of demonstrating learning. And, Five, our students may complete parts of their educational program by learning at another educational institution in Ithaca, not only Cornell or Ithaca college where some of our high schoolers take courses, but a local ballet studio, a karate center, or our Community School of Music and Art. The overriding idea is to find ways of learn-ing that will work for each student. Even within our heterogeneous, non-tracked, non-graded middle school and high school classes or courses, our teach-ers strive to find different ways of working with the different learning styles of our individual students. And where there are classes which have students who are having particular difficulties, we will add a second teacher, specifically trained to focus on and assist the learning of these students as a support to the subject matter teacher.

But what evidence is there - you ask - that our students are successful? How do we know the changes we have made - the reforms, the different ways of doing things - really work? I offer three indicators of our success: one, our waiting list and our growth from a junior high of 60 students to a middle school and high school of 260; two, performance of our students even on conventional standardized tests which is comparable or better than their counterparts in Ithaca's other secondary schools; and three, our high school graduates - and we have had twelve graduating classes - an average of 85 percent go to colleges across the country either immediately after high school or within three years of their graduation, others become fully employed, and none are on wel-fare or in prison.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by our local Central Administration and School Board, for they are increasingly interested in what we are doing, as are the teachers and administrators in the other secondary schools in Ithaca as they look to make reforms in their own programs. At the state level, we have just become one of the first group of schools in the New York State Education Department's "Partnership Schools Program" being designed as a major means of supporting the implementation of the Board of Regents approved Commissioner's "New Compact for Learning". And this has come about largely through our involvement nationally as one of approximately 100 schools who are full members of the "Coalition of Essential Schools", spearheaded by Ted Sizer of Brown University.

But I'm not here just to speak about our school, but to speak about the need for fundamental educa-tional reform in this country and about public schools of choice. Things can be different in public education; our public schools can change. Indeed, many schools and communities have already made or begun to make major, fundamental changes. There are relevant, motivating, self-esteem building ways of helping all young people become critical thinking problem-solvers. There are more authentic ways of evaluating learning than outmoded conventional, standardized paper and pencil tests. And, yes, there was a point when I homeschooled my own children for part of one of their elementary years in rural Ohio, and, yes, I did co-found a nonpublic, independent alternative school in rural Texas, at least partly for my own children, again in their elementary years. But supporting such different ways of educating as these were relatively easy for me as a white, middle class, slightly balding, definitely graying male with a PhD. And I do believe in the importance of such opportunities; yet, for the overwhelming majority of our population, it is the public schools which must change, and can change, and at least some are changing, as evidenced by our school. And in order for public schools of choice, like ACS, to be positive contributors to this desperately-needed change in the schools of this city, this state, and this country, then the following conditions, which are true for our school, must be met:

First, there must be real choices among essentially equal schools that are funded by the same per pupil expenditures.

Secondly, there must be real access to all of these schools of choice, which means not only free public transportation to such schools, but real com-munication to all students and their parents about such choices and the process of admission, communication that is not dependent solely on a written letter sent home.

Thirdly, each school of choice must guarantee a fully diverse student population made up of representatives of all of the minorities within a given school district, from all of the economic sectors of that district, and from students with learning diffi-culties as well.

Fourthly, there must be real democratic con-trol of such a school of choice by the administration, staff, students, and parents.

For as important as it is that our schools become more humane places, reorganized, and with major changes in their curricula, textbooks, teaching philosophies and methodologies, and with more direct involvement and even direct control by those being served by our schools, changes such as those I've described about ACS - the most fundamental change that also must occur, and occur now, is the elimination of our dual system of "separate and unequal" education. There must be a more equitable redistribution of funds to level the playing field of education. And this will not be brought about by treating schools as competing businesses, for the free-market dynamics will not work to correct these inequities and injustices found particularly in our urban and rural schools, rather they will work to deepen these divisions even more. Although money, or the lack of money, is a major factor in this inequity, making money available to foster even more the existing private and parochial school choices, will only serve to weaken our public schools at the very moment when they show the greatest signs and potential for real change. Businesses can, however, increasingly be helpful in providing "mini-apprenticeships", career explorations, and other "learning by doing" experiences as in our ACS Community Studies programs. They can be helpful in making it easy for their employees to have release time to attend conferences at school with their youngsters' teachers, and by providing funding to equalize the quality of education and the physical facilities of all our schools.

For things can be done; and you and I must, I say must, do them! It is for all the children of this nation and for their futures - we can do no less. It is toward this end that we must exhaust all of our efforts, particularly in a democracy, in a land still waiting for "liberty and justice for all."

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