Ch. 9: We built it, but will they come?

hope noun
/hōp/
a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen

In the summer of 1972 our team of four relatively young and inexperienced (although we didn’t see ourselves that way at the time) high school teachers was given the opportunity to design an alternative high school, which would later be known by the acronym ALPHA (Alternative Learning Program for the High School Age). (See previous post for more details.)

In the design we would present to the school board, students would be offered a variety of learning options, including independent study with the guidance of an adult, usually a teacher or other expert in the subject matter. They could also attend one or more carefully-selected traditional high school classes with the permission of their schools.

In addition, students would be required each semester as a group to select, plan, and implement a community service project.

One of the few “givens” as we began our planning was that half of our students would be those removed from two traditional high schools because of chronic attendance problems, which meant they would likely bring with them a host of negative attitudes about learning, school, and themselves.

We wanted to balance their views by recruiting other students who were academically capable and efficacious and who would be attracted by ALPHA’s unique learning opportunities. 

To that end we incorporated into our design a daily 2-hour required “workshop” in which groups of 20 would meet for academic and personal goal setting and planning, the identification of strengths, the clarification of values, and the teaching of various interpersonal skills essential to success in school and beyond.

We believed that these skills would also enable students to trust and support one another and, when appropriate, to confront their peers’ self-defeating behavior.

We would start small, which meant 40 students, half of whom would have attendance problems and the other half selected by a lottery because we believed that this school would attract a wide-variety of students who would far exceed in number the slots we had allocated for them.

While at the time we didn’t realize it, we had created a school that in many respects would have pleased John Dewey based on this description by Larry Cuban:

“The Dewey Lab School was committed to active, social, and individualized learning–all without laptops and tablets. Organizing the school day into group and individual projects located inside and outside the rooms of the school under the guidance of teachers, John and Alice Dewey believed that education needed to balance children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge. Such an education was instrumental to building a strong democracy and would lead to positive societal change.”

In August the Board of Education approved our plan, and immediately we had to make our first important decision—who among the four of us would be the two teachers to initially staff the school.

We were all surprised to learn that all of us for various reasons wanted to stay in our current teaching positions. For me, teaching psychology to seniors, which was how I spent most of my day, was a dream job.

Finally, two of us (me and a teacher from the other high school) succumbed to the reality that if we didn’t volunteer for this new and uncertain assignment the school would not open and our summer’s work would be for naught.

There would, however, prove to be unknown and unintended consequences in accepting the position that would affect both my personal and professional lives for decades to come. I’ll have much more to say about that in the near future.

But in the fall of 1972 I could only see the challenges that lie immediately ahead, challenges that would stretch me in both expected and unexpected ways.

The first of those was implementing what we had created, which meant coming to terms with what the plan would require of us in the weeks and months ahead.

Have you ever accepted, perhaps with ambivalence, a new position that stretched you in both expected and unexpected ways, and, if so, with what consequence?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

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