Parents and Alternative Education

images-11I’ve had a long history working with students in alternative environments.  In the past I’ve worked in youth corrections, a drug rehabilitation center and an alternative school. I am now a department head responsible for student success, which means in part, an alternative classroom within a “traditional” school. However, in all of these workplaces there has been one constant: we need to increase parent involvement.

I’m not out to criticize parents. Often there have been hundreds of calls home, dozens of meetings and intervention plans before their son or daughter reaches me. Some parents need the school to stop calling them at work and to be taking less time away for meetings or risk unemployment. Still others are exhausted by the number of interventions, phone calls and the amount of time they have invested in strategies that have ended poorly. Fair enough – the behaviours we see at school can sometimes be exponentially worse at home. And of course, I do see some involved parents, but not enough.

The trouble is that parent involvement can really help make a difference for our students in alternative placements. Often these placements offer a new start and opportunity to turn everything around, an opportunity that may work best with home support.

So what can we do? We can’t change work circumstances or the past.  So I set out to try to discover what other barriers there may be to parent alt. ed. involvement and to isolate the ones that I could influence. I came up with two and I’m working with my team to try bring more parents on board by changing what we can.

Understanding the program. Alternative education is often poorly understood. We’re not well marketed because our existence means that sometimes our other programs aren’t adequate to serve a minority of students. They can be seen to symbolize failure. On this front, I disagree. Instead, in our alternative programs, I see an understanding that some students require a unique path and that caring educators will go to great lengths to build success for all of our students.

Others perceive the program as a punishment or a validation of their child as a failure. Messaging akin to “If you don’t do X, we’ll be sending you to the Y program” is common in some of my past workplaces. It doesn’t help anyone if students and parents are overcome with feelings of shame or resentment while we are trying to motivate and encourage change.

Hope. The road to my classroom probably hasn’t been good, but the outcomes still can be. Instead of failure and punishment, we could recover several credits and get their child completely caught-up! And in a new environment with lots of 1:1 and understanding, there is lots of reason for hope if we can change mindsets. Lots.

So what to do? We’re trying a video and phone campaign. The video above is less flashy than some of our other work, but is designed to show parents the nature of our programs and to encourage their involvement. And because it’s online, it won’t interfere with  parent work schedules.  We’re sending students home with a small slip of paper (reduce, reuse, recycle) with the link and QR code for the video, instructions on how to sign up for remind101 text message updates and asking for the parent’s signature that they received these messages.

We’re beginning a phone home campaign at the beginning of the semester, before any new negative messaging may occur, to welcome their child, connect to parents and share the amazing possibilities of their semester in an alternative environment. As the semester proceeds, our challenge will be to maintain the hope of parents and students as we navigate the rest of the semester.

That’s our parent plan: information and hope. It’s modest, but it’s something that can be maintained each semester without undue hardship. We know that parents want the best for their child and are doing the best they can.  Perhaps our work can help inform their efforts and re-connect them with school.  We’re hopeful that at the end of the semester we’ll be able to share information about the success of campaign.


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