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BOSTON, Mass. — At Boston Day and Evening Academy, there are no such things as freshmen, F’s or detention.
Sixteen-year-olds share classrooms with 20-somethings, students earn diplomas at their own pace and if anyone has a problem with a peer, they’re encouraged to talk about it like adults. It is features like these that have helped former high school dropouts like Rocheli Burgos — and other students who have struggled in school — get a second chance at earning a diploma.
After giving birth to her son in 2011, Burgos dropped out of her old school when counselors told her that she didn’t have enough credits to pass ninth grade. Burgos then discovered this alternative high school in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, where students aren’t placed in classes by age or transcript, but by what they know. She was 17, battling severe depression and dealing with a fallout with her family that would soon leave her homeless.
At the Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), Burgos found a curriculum that made it possible to take breaks and start where she left off, so she wouldn’t have to repeat an entire class when her son’s long hospital stays for chronic asthma meant missing a month or two of school. She met teachers who checked in with her on the weekends to make sure she was doing OK — and not just academically. Soon she began to thrive.
While BDEA’s approach to education may once have been a radical departure from the norm, experts say it’s gaining in popularity. For one, its strategies work: According to school administrators, 65 percent of its students graduate from BDEA or get a GED, 70 percent of its graduates go on to college and the school has one of the lowest suspension rates in Massachusetts, despite several gang affiliations among its students.
Alternative schools can vary widely, and some have been criticized for warehousing difficult cases and using harsh discipline. But a subset of alternative schools has long embraced more progressive models of education. More high schools, and some entire states, are borrowing ideas that “last-chance” schools like BDEA have been using for decades — practices such as competency-based education, attention to students’ social and emotional well-being and a “restorative justice” approach to school discipline.
“I think what people are coming to realize is that [these practices] apply to all students,” said Leah Hamilton, education director of the Boston-based Barr Foundation. (The Barr Foundation is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)
“All students need to be deeply known by the adults that are working with them to support their learning,” she said. “All students need to have transparency about where they are in their progress and what they need to do to meet graduation standards.”
Based on what you know
As part of BDEA’s competency-based approach, all new students take a trimester-long course in which they study math, English language arts and science together. Teachers determine how much the students know about each subject, on a scale from “highly competent” to “not yet competent.” They are then placed in courses that match their skill levels — regardless of age or whatever letter grades they earned in the subjects at their previous schools.
If a student struggles in reading but is good at algebra, for example, he or she may end up in an introductory literature class while taking advanced math. Once students have demonstrated competency in a course through a written or project-based assessment, they can move on to the next course in that subject area at their own pace.
Flexibility in curriculum for students who are all over the place academically is a key component in successful alternative schools, Hamilton said, because of the populations they tend to serve.
According to a National Center for Education Statistics report, children with behavioral problems are the most common target group for alternative school programs, which served more than 575,000 students in 2013 (the most recent year for which data is available). The schools also serve students who have academic difficulties, have dropped out of high school or are at risk of doing so for a variety of other reasons, including pregnancy, homelessness and abuse.
Of the 405 students at BDEA, who range in age from 16 to 23, almost all are economically disadvantaged. Half self-identify as having a mental illness and about a third have experienced significant trauma during childhood, according to information provided by the school.
“Alternative schools opened to say, ‘Hey, not all students are the same,’ ” said JoEllen Lynch, executive director of Springpoint, an organization in New York City that specializes in redesigning schools.
Lynch has spent the last 35 years as an advocate for reforming the traditional school experience to include some of the practices she learned during the first part of her career in alternative education. Alternative schools are generally smaller and more personalized and have always operated by putting students’ needs first, she said.
“The large, factory-model high school will just keep leaving them behind,” said Lynch. “They just keep failing them.”
But the old factory model is becoming less common as alternative versions like BDEA’s catch on. New Hampshire and Vermont are among more than a dozen states that have passed laws introducing some form of competency-based education. In some places, all schools are required to allow students to pass a class by showing mastery, rather than by adding up their seat time.
For students like Burgos, it means not feeling pressured by seeing peers advancing more quickly.
“If you’re in ninth grade or whatever in a regular high school and you see other people passing you, in a regular high school you would feel like, ‘Dang. Either I’m not smart enough to go up those grades,’ or ‘I won’t be able to pass,’ ” said Burgos. “This school, they just pick up your spirit. They took out all the negativity out of me when I felt like I wanted to give up half the time.”
Alyson Sullivan is a community field coordinator at BDEA whose role in the Student Support office involves more than academic counseling and discipline. She calls it “triage.”
On one recent Monday morning, her job included counseling a student who was in an abusive relationship and advising another whose family was in danger of losing their house after his father’s recent death.
“If you talk to our students, nine times out of 10 if you ask them, ‘Well, why was it different here? Why did you make it here and you couldn’t at your old school?’ they say the relationships they have with staff,” Sullivan said. “Just really having those genuine and authentic relationships with our students makes us different.”
Masiah Jones, 18, can attest to that. While attending her old high school, she was working 50 hours a week at a pizza shop to help provide for her family. Her grades slipped, but teachers didn’t seem to understand why, she said, and sometimes she felt judged.
A few months before she graduated from BDEA in December, Jones had to move out of her house because her mother could no longer afford to have all of her kids living at home, she said. So some BDEA staff members took turns letting her stay with them.
“I wouldn’t have had that anywhere else,” she said. “I wouldn’t expect a teacher to do that for me.”
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Burgos, too, has relied on staff support for help outside of the classroom. Though she was once too embarrassed to tell her teachers and advisers that she was living in a shelter, she’s now enlisted their help in her search for permanent housing.
An educational approach focused on the needs of the “whole child” and on students’ social and emotional development is a hallmark of alternative education, said Ephraim Weisstein, executive director of the nonprofit Diploma Plus, a network of competency-based alternative schools across the country. He described alternative schools as being leaders in “marrying the psychological with the educational.”
“They have to have it,” he said. “Otherwise there would be no way that this would work given the students who come to them and their needs.”
This approach, too, has been gaining traction in the mainstream education system. In 2003, as part of the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Act, Illinois became the first state to incorporate standards for social and emotional learning in preschool through 12th grade. The standards include descriptions of what students’ behavior and interpersonal skills are expected to look like at certain grade levels, as well as protocols for responding to social, emotional and mental health problems that affect students’ learning.
More recently, school districts from Anchorage to Atlanta have placed renewed attention on social emotional learning, and in 2015, Boston Public Schools created a new position in its administration for an assistant superintendent of social emotional learning and wellness, believed to be the first position of its kind in the country.
‘Restoring’ not suspending
In the real world, responsible adults who have a conflict talk it out. Students at BDEA do the same thing.
The school favors conflict mediation over zero-tolerance policies as a way to prepare young people to handle themselves once they head to college and jobs. When students disagree, staff guide them through mediated conversations in which they can address their issues with one another. If a problem escalates in a public place and disrupts learning, then the students must apologize to their peers during a school assembly. Suspensions are reserved for violence or bringing weapons to school.
Studies have shown that this “restorative justice” approach, as this method of discipline is often called, can have two benefits. It often decreases suspensions and expulsions, which are prone to racial disparities. And, on the flip side, it can improve school climate and even increase graduation rates. Such results have led more schools to reject zero tolerance in favor of restorative justice, and models like BDEA’s have proven it can work in schools.
Founded in 1995, BDEA has been using restorative justice since before the practice earned its name, said Alison Hramiec, the head of the school. She tells students all the time that they’re not expected to be perfect — that they’re going to make mistakes, and that sometimes those mistakes will be a reflection of the environment in which they live.
“But we’re not going to kick you out for that. We’re not going to say you failed because of that. We’re going to say what’s more important is that you learn from that and that we see continual growth,” she said.
Despite rival gang affiliations among the student body, there has been only one physical altercation between students in the last two years, according to school officials. The school’s suspension rate is among the lowest in the state.
“They really respect the space because we respect them,” Sullivan said. “We treat them like people and like young adults.”
As this approach gains steam, some districts trace its implementation back to alternative schools. In eastern Pennsylvania, the affiliated nonprofits Community Service Foundation and Buxmont Academy, which run six alternative education programs for at-risk youth, among other programs, have been using restorative practices since the early 2000s.
“Several districts saw it and said, ‘Wow, I want to do this,’ ” said the nonprofits’ president, Craig Adamson. They’ve since trained district leaders in surrounding areas on moving from a zero tolerance to a restorative approach and have impacted discipline policies in many school districts — including Palisades, Pottstown and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Even some charter chains once known for no-excuses, tough disciplinary policies are shifting gears to less punitive systems.
One reason restorative justice works at BDEA, Hramiec explained, is that students who are in classes that match their academic abilities are not bored or frustrated in the classroom. The emphasis on students’ social and emotional needs also makes a difference, as the student support team is trained to identify outside stress factors before they escalate into behavioral issues.
Weisstein said that although some schools of 2,000 or so students are now trying strategies similar to BDEA’s, there’s a reason why more haven’t latched on to its personalized approach: It’s “frankly too much of a headache.”
Yet, at BDEA, the strategies worked for Burgos. Now 23, she graduated last September and started working part time at the school as a teaching assistant in the fall.
She’s doing it to gain experience for a future career in teaching, she said. But she also wanted to give back to the school that ultimately helped her to “grow up” and — with high school diploma in hand — feel like she could finally start a better life for herself and her son.