Seeking alternatives to alternative schools

A dispute at a drinking fountain at North Augusta High School in 2014 resulted in a weeks-long sentence to an alternative school for 15-year-old Logan Rewis, a decision that changed the course of his academic career and contributed to his decision to drop out of school entirely.

Rewis contends he accidentally dripped water on a teacher’s shoe when sipping from the fountain, while the teacher insisted he intentionally spit on him. Regardless, a tribunal of retired educators sided with the teacher and banished Rewis to the Center for Innovative Learning at Pinecrest, the district’s decrepit alternative school, ProPublica reports.

It wasn’t the first time that school officials sent Rewis to Pinecrest—he previously attended for acting up after his parents divorced —but the more than four-month stint in 2014 marked the beginning of his academic career.

According to ProPublica:

The Center for Innovative Learning was anything but. While the small classes at Pinecrest took pressure off Logan, he wasn’t learning much. His computer-based courses in social studies and science required him to absorb screens and screens of text. “There was a lot of stuff to read and I wasn’t really good at reading,” he recalls. Some kids figured out a way to get around the school’s academic software to surf outside websites, such as Facebook, he says. Other classes taught by teachers were too easy for a high school freshman, he says—his math class spent the period doing multiplication with calculators.

“They didn’t teach me anything at all,” Logan says. His grades in the computer-based courses tanked.

By the time Rewis returned to North Augusta High School 13 weeks later, he’d fallen far behind his peers and struggled to catch up.

“I don’t know any of this, you are way farther ahead of me,” he told his math teacher. “I wasn’t doing anything like this in alternative school.”

Weeks later teachers caught Logan looking at his cell phone twice in the same day, another school violation. North Augusta officials recommended expulsion and set up another hearing, but Rewis didn’t bother to plead his case and dropped out of high school in the spring of 2015.

He eventually moved to Georgia to build chicken houses for his uncle’s company.

Unfortunately, Rewis’ story isn’t unique. ProPublica documented how alternative schools morphed from an idea to offer flexible instruction for kids who didn’t thrive in traditional schools to “places to warehouse students who had broken zero-tolerance policies.”

That trend has seemingly increased as the Obama administration pressured school districts to reduce disproportionately high suspensions of minority students. Despite policies that stipulate that the nonvoluntary transfers to alternative schools should be used as a last resort, many schools are simply using them to lower their suspension and expulsion stats, according to the education site.

Rewis’ mother, Lisa Woodward, believes school administrators “hang these children out to dry.”

“They don’t want nothing else to do with them,” she said.

Murray Milner, senior scholar with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, highlighted how the issues plaguing school discipline are weighing on educators.

Teachers “have few effective sanctions against students, especially those indifferent about grades,” Milner wrote in his book Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids. “Troublemakers can be sent to a counselor or assistant principal, but the teacher who does this too often becomes defined as incompetent.”

With teachers and administrators lacking both low-level sanctions for discipline and effective practices for deescalating contentious situations, many look to suspension, expulsion, and transfer to alternative schools as punishment.

But a growing number of schools are working to change the dynamic, and many are exploring a restorative justice approach to school discipline that aim to reduce suspensions and transfers to alternative schools by encouraging students to work through their problems and repair relationships.

The state of Illinois offers a guide on implementing restorative justice practices for educators seeking a better way.