Belleville Township High School District 201 in Illinois serves students at two primary high schools, Belleville East and Belleville West, as well as a night school and, as of this year, an alternative day school for at-risk students. Robert Dahm is the principal of that day school, and I invited him to share some of the elements of success at that school, since it has received excellent reviews in the media and from parents.
If a program at your school is working very well, please tell us about it so we can share the good news as part of our flagship “Vox ætatis” series. That’s a Latin phrase that means “voice of an age group,” and we have found that kids can often speak for themselves. They sometimes use words, sometimes actions, sometimes artistry, and so on, to express themselves about life in their schools. When necessary, we will interview adults for the series, but this is done, as in this article, because getting the word out about a program with a positive effect on kids’ lives is more important than strict adherence to our technicality.
Below are my questions (in bold) followed by written answers given by Mr Dahm. He shares many good ideas for helping put kids who all deserve the opportunity to succeed back on the right track—in school, learning, and collaborating with their peers.
What were some of the forces or events that prompted District 201 to consider starting an alternative school when the night school has been running for 36 years?
The night school program was designed for credit recovery and drop out. While it has evolved over the years, night school is a program that cannot be “prescribed”: It is a voluntary program that takes place from 4 PM until 9:30 PM during the week. Having the ability to prescribe a program such as the Alternative Day School is beneficial to families and the school.
What advice did you get about how to set up the alternative day school?
I gained much advice from Jerry W. Valentine, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus from the University of Missouri. We discussed various models for the Alternative Day School and tailored the program to our district. We looked at other local Alternative Schools and looked at the Good Work Project.
Can you describe in general terms some of the characteristics of students who tend to benefit the most from the alternative day school?
The students who benefit the most are those students who are not plugging into the traditional setting. These students often feel like a number who has to be educated. Far too often a number of high school students who do not fit into the traditional school find their way out of the system either through discipline issues or through dropping out.
We now have a system to intervene earlier and prescribe the Alternative Day School much like a doctor may prescribe a particular diet or medicine to someone who needs to lose weight or is suffering from an ailment that can be remediated if addressed early. Early detection and treatment is good for education.
We work very hard to assist our students with mastery of their learning. We say “learning” because our belief is that the teachers should facilitate and help activate student learning and our students must take ownership and control of their learning.
What are some of the overall goals of the alternative day school that differ from those at your regular high schools?
Students in the Alternative Day School will receive a variety of educational and support services designed to create a successful experience for each student in the program. The following is a list of the most common support services.
- An assigned mentor
- Smaller class size
- Greater certified staff-to-student ratio
- Greater support staff-to-student ratio
- Individual and group counseling
- Student/parent/family counseling
- Home visits as needed
- BTHS 201 course selections geared to completing graduation requirements
- Individualized Program Plan development, monitoring and support
- School Wide Behavioral System
- Flexible Class Schedules
Is there anything in your background or experience that personally led you to accept the challenge of the new school?
I started my career in secondary education as a teacher in the behavioral emotional disorder program at Belleville West. I have always believed that when students who are younger act out or seek attention in a manner that is not acceptable in a traditional setting that they have many issues resolved if they were coached.
As an assistant principal I would enforce policy and procedure that I found many students and families did not really understand. What I mean by this is that they understood the concept but had a difficult time understanding the importance of things such as punctuality or using a tone of voice that was appropriate for the given setting.
What I experienced in this role was the suspension of students who needed to be in school; however, their interactions within the school demanded that they not be among their peers. So we suspended or put students in an in-school detention program with little to no dialogue or remediation. I believe that if we directly teach some of the skill sets we are expecting, we can assist many students with their personal growth.
How have teachers in the alternative day school adjusted to any differences from teachers in your regular high schools—daily duties, the staff they work with, how they interact with students, and so on?
We are a team who meets and plans virtually every day. The teachers in the Alternative Day School understand the need for individual attention for each student. While lesson plans may be broad, the teachers within the Alternative Day School make conscious collective decisions for each individual student. Our teachers collaborate across the curriculum to better serve the students: Math and Science collaborate and English and Social Studies collaborate.
This approach makes a lot of sense in that our students are not constantly “shifting gears.” They are able to make connections between content areas; this is difficult to do in a traditional setting. As far as the day-to-day, staff is engaged fully with students; however, we meet the requirements of our collective bargaining agreement.
How do the students’ parents interact with staff at the school? And how important is this interaction to students’ success?
The teachers interact with parents openly. Our experience is that our parents are supportive. The students understand that the teachers and administration and their parents are working together to help move them forward and prepare them to be college- and work-ready.
Taking a team approach is very important: our students must understand that we are all in this together and ultimately they decide to accept guidance and direction that is being provided or they don’t. In a sense, we are all raising these kids together. We look at the gift that each student brings with them and help them develop their unique gift.
Is there anything I forgot to ask that people should know?
You did not forget anything; however, we have adopted the idea that it is better to teach a person how to fish rather than give that person a fish. The students understand that their teachers are here to guide and facilitate their learning. Learning how to learn and continue to learn is very important for all of us. We will be using a blended learning approach in the future. We are trying to secure 60 Google Chrome books if you know of any sources that might be available.
Finally I share this from our vision and mission document: We used the Good Work Project to guide us with these principles.
Program Principles Designed to Support Student Development
To foster continuous student development during the program, staff and students alike must understand and appreciate the importance of several principles woven throughout the Alternative School program to support the educational and personal development of all students.
Successful implementation of these principles will build the capacity of the faculty to meet student needs and support student growth.
Maintaining the alignment of the work of the staff and the students with these principles will be a constant challenge for all concerned. However, when these principles are fully internalized into the processes of the school’s program, they will have a powerful impact on student success.
- Defining good quality student work
- Defining beliefs and values and how those form the foundation for students to overcome difficult situations while possibly also creating tension
- Establishing goals for student success, as well as the strategies they use and the quality of the decision they make to achieve the goal
- Establishing responsibilities that students must develop and accept as a foundation for success in their school and personal life
- Developing both student and staff understanding the roles of mentors and role models and collaboratively identifying characteristics of performance demonstrated by mentors/role models
- Understanding the meaning of excellence in one’s work and personal life and the significance of excellent effort and work to build self-expectations
- Developing the perspectives of others and understanding how differing perspectives foster one’s performance and behavior