Alternative schools, controversial innovations of the late 1960s which meant open classrooms, independent study and a variety of unusual electives, have taken on new meaning in Arlington.
Although the school board is considering a report that recommends establisment of alternative schools next year, there is little resemblance between that proposal and the earlier wave of alternative schools.
The report recommends "traditional" alternative schools, complete with a "standard of appearance," self-contained classrooms, textbook instruction and stress on educational basics.
The alternative programs would not be implemented throughout the school superintendent Larry Cuban and the school board.
If, as some school officials predict, the board votes to establish the schools at its meeting Dec. 15, Arlington would be the first local school system to establish traditional alternative schools. In recent years, similar schools have been established in Pasadena and Palo Alto, Calif., and Louisville, Ky.
Under the Arlington proposal, the traditional schools would be open to students in all grades on a voluntary, countywide basis. The board has indicated that if the proposal is approved it might use schools which have been closed recently due to declining enrollments in traditional programs.
Last May the school board appointed a task force to examine the feasibility of instituting traditional schools and, at its meeting last week, heard the results.
Task force chairman Ingrid Planert told the board that 34 percent of all parents of schoolage children in Arlington responded, and of those, more than 76 percent said they favored establishing a traditional school. School officials and task force members admitted they were surprised by the strength of the response.
"The difference between the traditional program and the current Arlington school program is one of degree," Planert told the board.
The committee recommended that:
The traditional schools emphasize science programs and basic skills in areas such as English, math and foreign languages. "The focus . . . would be on basic subject areas with less emphasis on the diversity of course offerings."
Regular homework be required.
Students be placed in classes on the basis of demonstrated achievement. "Achievement refers to the identification of the student's level of competence, rather than the identification of his or her potential ability."
Teacher-guided instruction rather than student-directed or independent study predominate.
School board member Ann Broder explained the difference in approach between the current program and the proposed traditional schools. "My opinion is that we delivery system is different. Different kids respond better and learn better in different settings. The basic skills are there whether you're or in neat little rows in a classroom."
Since 1971, Arlington has had alternative programs at Drew Elementary, Hoffman-Boston Junior High School. These programs are less structured than most at both the elementary and secondary school levels.
In an interview after the meeting, Planert said the move for a traditional school was fueled by the board decision to close Stratford Junior High School at the end of this school year.
"Stratford is a neighborhood school," she said, noting its popularity and its reputation for stressing student and staff accountability. It is this accountability which some parents, including Planert, claim is lacking in Arlington schools.
"I don't see the school talking about moving in this direction at this point," she said. "Consistent achievement placement doesn't exist, and with the traditional school, we're talking about placing a youngster according to how well he's doing, not according to IQ scores" or other indications of educational potential.
Planert said social promotion - the educational policy of moving a student ahead with his peers - would be discouraged in a traditional school environment. Social promotion has come under fire recently in school systems around the country, and some officials claim it has produced high school graduates who lack basic educational skills.
Charles Spencer, whose two daughters attend Arlington schools, said after hearing the report: "It's a gut feeling, but if they had really good schools, Arlington could be producing Rhodes scholars. There's too much flexibility, too many things trying to be done."
Spencer pointed to the expository writing program instituted this year, which requires all students above the fourth grade to write at least one paragraph per week.
"It should never happen in Arlington," he said, "where teachers were not assigning several paragraphs per week."
Dr. Todd Endo, assistant to Supt. Cuban noted, "We're getting a lot of criticism from people who say the whole school system should be more (traditional). That's not the point. When we opened Hoffman-Boston and Woodlawn it didn't mean that the schools were bad. It's just a difference in emphasis. I look at the traditional alternative schools in the same way."
At the meeting last week, some parents expressed concern that the proposal might be shelved for next year because of financial considerations.
However, Endo noted, "It isn't going to cost much more money. My bet is that it's got a very good chance for next year."
Endo said a traditional school probably would be established on an experimental basis as were Hoffman-Boston and Woodlawn.
"I imagine it would continue to exist as long as enough students want to enroll and test scores (are satisfactory) and students and parents are satisfied with the program," he said.