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Task Force Looks at Alternative School

By Ann O'Hanlon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 1997; Page V01

Alexandria opens its school doors next week embroiled in a debate over how best to educate the city's struggling students, with some African American parents complaining that a proposed alternative school could be a "dumping ground for minorities."

That sentiment has been expressed repeatedly in testimony to the School Board and in remarks by Northern Virginia Urban League chief executive George Lambert, Alexandria NAACP President Dirck Hargraves and others. It has become such a common complaint that the official report from an alternative education task force specifically includes the goal of ensuring that no alternative education program becomes a dumping ground for students or teachers.

The chairman of the Superintendent's Alternative Education Task Force, which studied alternative education programs in Alexandria and elsewhere for eight months before issuing its report in June 1996, says the fears are unfounded. School Board member and former chairwoman Claire Eberwein agrees. The idea, they and other supporters say, is to create a top-notch school that would help students who need it the most.

"What we're saying is take the best possible physical plant we can find, give it all the resources that are needed, give it teachers who want to be there, give it the best curriculum possible and give these kids the best environment to succeed," said task force Chairman J. Glenn Hopkins, who is African American. "If that's what you call a dumping ground, then I'm a bit confused."

The dual passions -- that an enhanced alternative program is needed in Alexandria and that such a program has the potential to hurt rather than help students -- were argued last week at a briefing before the School Board by Hopkins and task force Vice Chairman Sandra Levy.

Discussion of the proposal will continue at public meetings Sept. 25 at Jefferson Houston Elementary School, Oct. 8 at Cora Kelly Elementary School and Oct. 29 at the School Board meeting room. All meetings begin at 7 p.m.

School officials appointed the task force, composed of residents, school officials and community leaders, because the dropout and suspension rates in Alexandria have risen steadily in the 1990s, forcing the realization that the current alternative programs are not sufficient.

The task force's recommendation is to build a facility or find an existing building in which to house an alternative education program for grades 9-12, as well as enhancing programs for students in other grades. The students in the high school program, which would number no more than 200, according to Eberwein, would be there through voluntary application or administrative referral or as ordered by a court. By the third year, the task force recommends that 30 percent of the students be voluntary applicants.

Candidates would include students with extensive absences or "low academic self-esteem" and students whose behavior inhibits them or the students around them.

At most, the program would cost $10 million, Hopkins said. If the school system can find an existing building rather than build a new one, the cost would be much less.

Alternative programs exist at Alexandria's middle schools, the Minnie Howard ninth-grade school and T.C. Williams High School. Children in those programs attend separate classes and spend more of the day on core subject areas.

The future of the programs is unclear. The proposal recommends that the Minnie Howard and T.C. Williams programs be incorporated into the new program under a different roof.

In addition, the task force recommends that all teachers be trained in alternative education and that alternative programs begin at all elementary schools, as well.

Task force member Lawrence Jointer, Alexandria's director of pupil services and the former principal of the T.C. Williams alternative program, said it is essential to house the program somewhere other than at traditional schools.

"Sometimes the kids at T.C. Williams will make remarks," he said, adding that there was a feeling of alienation that came from being adjacent to the mainstream school.

Eberwein agreed, saying that "a sense of identity, a sense of 'this is our school and we're proud of it,' " could come only if an alternative program has its own building.

Alternative education programs exist in their own distinct physical plant in all other Northern Virginia jurisdictions except Manassas Park, and most jurisdictions have more than one building for such programs.

Alexandria's school system, which is 49 percent African American, 25 percent white and 20 percent Latino, integrated its schools only 25 years ago.

One result of this history, said Lambert and others in the black community, is an initial reaction of great caution and even distrust at any school proposal that has the potential to treat children unfairly on the basis of race.

To compound the issue, many of Alexandria's minority students come from lower-income or single-parent homes, which statistically are more likely to create environments for academic difficulty.

Such backgrounds can make those students prime candidates for an alternative setting, with smaller class sizes and individualized teaching. But, said former School Board member Bernadette Johnson, who is African American, such students also can be unfairly targeted as candidates for alternative education.

"These kids," Johnson said, "some of them come from broken families. And there are other elements we need to consider. You may have a mom who's an abuser, and the older child may be the one who's making sure the siblings get to school. And by the time she gets them ready, she's too tired to go to school. And it happens in a lot of minority families."

Johnson said she heard from four different minority families during her School Board tenure who thought their children were unfairly selected for the T.C. Williams alternative program, called STEP.

One parent complained that a pregnant daughter, who missed school numerous times because of the pregnancy and delivery, was automatically sent to STEP. Other parents said the teacher seemed to have less patience with their child than with other students, leading to speculation about racism.

The STEP enrollment last school year was 66 percent African American, 12 percent white and 21 percent Latino.

Task force member Jacqueline Lewis, an African American who was a secretary at a Fairfax alternative school, said that she understands the concerns but that parents need only be attentive, not anxious.

"It's been traditional that minority kids have been misplaced in an alternative program," she said. "But," she added, referring specifically to the Alexandria proposal, "I don't foresee it becoming a problem."

School Board Vice Chairman Henry S. Brooks, who is Hispanic, said that the proposal is preliminary and that criticism is premature.

"There's a great many students going through the system now without an education and with a huge dropout rate," he said. "I think you have to give the proposal a fair hearing. . . . All we have is a task force report that says that certain children need additional services in order to make them successful."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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