By Clif Cleaveland, MD
I grew up in a time and place that afforded few second chances for troubled students. Bullying, fighting, or other repeated disciplinary problems were the serious offenses that culminated in expulsion. I do not know what became of these students. Were they old enough to obtain jobs? Did their families move to other communities or send the students to live with relatives in other districts? Did anyone, in fact, care? Back then, educators and parents did not know enough about learning disabilities or psychological issues that may have been contributing factors to errant behavior. Diagnosis of behavioral disorders and rehabilitation were foreign concepts.
In March I had the special privilege of spending half a day at the Washington Alternative School, our district's special facility for students who have had serious, behavioral problems in standard schools. The school is one of many reasons why our community owes School Superintendent Jesse Register a large debt of gratitude.
Ten years ago the Washington School was a burned out hulk that served as home for several squatters who partitioned space with plastic sheeting. Much of the building was without a roof. Trees punctured the floor in hallways. A teacher concerned about the plight of expelled students saw possibilities for the structure. Grants were obtained to renovate the building. Discarded furniture, supplies, and computers found their way into the freshly painted and tiled classrooms. Ten years ago the school opened.
Washington School serves grades six through twelve. It has no athletic teams, cheerleaders, alumni organization, or clubs typical of most schools. Many of its students have been remanded to the school after committing serious offenses or being repeatedly disruptive in their previous classrooms. Some are there after serving sentences in state reformatories. Only after sustained proof that they can progress in their studies and adhere to rigorous rules can these students rejoin conventional schools. Once they are sent to Washington School students will spend from twelve weeks to a full academic year in its program. The student body ranges from 90 to 140; each week sees several departures and several new arrivals. At present the student body is almost evenly divided between boys and girls.
A faculty of eight led by Principal Gary James, a guidance counselor, and a policeman minister to the students. The school is based on levels of privilege that are earned by good behavior. A newcomer enters the school at the “bronze” level. Accumulation of good conduct marks, which can be awarded or subtracted by anyone at the school, allows advancement in sequence to “silver,” “gold,” and “platinum” categories. Each promotion carries additional, modest liberties. A platinum student can carry messages to the office without accompaniment; he can spend an afternoon at a nearby recreation facility; he can order a special lunch weekly.
I visited three classes--math where students who completed an exam on time could play a game of chess, social studies, and senior English. Some of the students had complex learning problems; many read well below grade level. Some had significant attention-deficit and hyperactivity problems. Some seemed quite bright but disorganized. I participated in discussions on courage based on a series of essays that the students had read. The teachers amazed me with their skills in maintaining order and momentum in the day's lesson plan. There are no bells to mark the end of classes; the clanging sound is too disruptive. Hallways remain quiet while students move from one room to another. Good manners and mutual respect are repeatedly emphasized. The lessons of Washington School involve not only academics but also how to behave constructively both in and away from school. The School establishes for many of its students the first, consistent code of conduct and expectations that they have had.
My visit was a sampler. The three hours passed without incident. The students who greeted me were cordial. One asked if I would join him in a game of chess. We had frank discussions on courage and heroism. Perhaps the presence of a stranger was intimidating. The staff acknowledged difficult days when tensions run high because of eruptive behavior. Sometimes the courts remand students whom the school simply cannot reach. A large majority of the students who pass through the sparkling halls of Washington School successfully rejoin conventional schools. An occasional alumnus or alumna writes a letter of appreciation from college.
I was awed by the dedication and the skills of the faculty and staff. They are on a mission that literally saves lives and generates hope where that is a scarce commodity. Too often critics take political, potshots at our public schools. With thin resources, large hearts, and incredible dedication the Washington School embodies the idea that education is finally an act of devotion to the well-being of all students.