Finding the Unexpected in an Alternative Graduation Program

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This is my fifth year coordinating the Late Afternoon School, a program I described in an earlier post. We offer individualized schedules, after school and summer credits, and tutoring tailored to the personal graduation goals of students identified as having special needs.

Some of our offerings have changed over the years in response to changes in Tennessee graduation requirements, which really isn’t surprising. What has surprised me are the changes in the graduation goals of the students I serve as they have begun to push the boundaries of our original mission. I’ve discovered that when you offer flexible routes outside those prescribed by the mainstream curriculum, many young people take advantage of those opportunities to advance their own goals, and lead us into unexpected directions.

Personal Graduation Goals are the cornerstone of Late Afternoon School. We start by asking students their goals for graduation in the very first enrollment meeting, discuss their goals as they progress toward meeting them, and celebrate completion of the goals in the end.

When we began L.A. School, students didn’t know enough about us to refer themselves. Typically, they were referred by school administrators when they fell significantly behind in course completion, failed standardized graduation tests, or had chronic truancy. Typical goals expressed were, “to get out of truancy trouble” or “to get out of this *%^$ school as fast as I can” or “to get my diploma so everyone quits bugging me.” I wasn’t surprised, and really, the students being referred to me didn’t have any real choice of whether to enter the program. If they refused to join, they would be sent right back to the classrooms where they had already experienced failure with no hope of earning credits or completing diploma requirements, or would be likely to continue to be truant and face the legal consequences.

Failing students are still referred to me by administrators, but the group of students who have surprised me are the ones who have begun to refer themselves. These are not students in trouble. These are students looking for an alternative to advance their own goals.

This summer, at least half of the students who come to my classroom every day do not need to recover credits and have chosen to work many long and hard hours when they could be hanging out with friends or lounging at the city pool.

Why? Because they’ve set challenging personal graduation goals for themselves. A few of them are older students for their grade level who want to complete additional credits to promote to a higher grade. Because they have had learning difficulties throughout their school years, students with special needs are more likely to have been retained during elementary and middle school. A history of retention puts a student at risk for dropping out. Young people who ask to work after school and over the summer in addition to the regular school load in order to advance to a higher grade level state graduation goals like, “I want to catch back up with my class.” Even if it has been years since they repeated a grade, they still talk about themselves as having been left behind.

Another group I serve are those my grandmother would have called the “late bloomers.” These students struggled in lower grades, didn’t put forth effort, or had extreme problems attending in class. Now, they’ve matured and set ambitious goals for themselves, albeit a little late in the game. At sixteen or seventeen years old, they’ve decided they want to attend college or technical school, and have realized that they need to take more challenging coursework to achieve their goals.

Some of these students take classes to level up to a higher math pathway to improve their college readiness. Others take basic classes to make room in next year’s schedule for higher level coursework in their area of interest.

Young people who have chosen these challenges for themselves are a teacher’s dream – students who never ask for a free day, but instead ask for more work as soon as they finish an assignment, and ask to take extra work home to get ahead. That certainly isn’t what I expected when this job was offered to me.

“Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so.” – Doris Lessing

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