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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Oklahoma Needs More Alternative Education

The Oklahoma Senate Education Committee passed Senate Bill 519 by Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson, R-Oklahoma City, which would eliminate one of the three exemptions from a compulsory attendance law.

Wilcoxson said the measure was requested by Gov. Brad Henry.

The bill would eliminate the exemption that allows a student to drop out when a parent, custodian or guardian of the child and the school administrator agree that the student's leaving school is in the best interest of the community and child.

All well and good, but what are the teachers and administrators of Oklahoma's public schools to do with these "at risk" students who will be denied their wish to drop out and must remain in our student population? After all, very few young people drop out of school because they are experiencing success in the classroom.

If Oklahoma lawmakers really want to do something about Oklahoma's dropout problem, they need to expand the opportunities students and administrators have to use alternative education, especially in the urban areas of the state. Any teacher can point out those students in the school who will not make it to graduation unless some type of radical intervention takes place. These students usually constitute about 5% of the student population, but they create about 80% of the schools problems through their poor socialization skills, low academic achievement, and disruptive classroom behavior. These are the students, often, the teacher prays will be absent of class that day because then the rest of the students can learn.
The reasons for these students' problems are numerous: single/zero parent families, drug usage, lack of motivation, and so on. The result is uniform. They create a poor school environment. They hinder other students. They lower school test scores. They drop out and become wards of the state either on the welfare roles or in prisons.

These students will not make it in the "traditional" school. No manner of teacher heroics will save them from their fate unless there is a method to meet their needs, needs the traditional school is not and never was set up to meet.

We need to provide them the opportunity to succeed through something other than the traditional school, but school districts, already pressed with budgets strained beyond capacity, have only limited alternative spots which quickly fill up during the first quarter of the school year. And don't think that school consolidation will provide the necessary resources. In fact, the problem would likely increase if schools become larger and administrative staffs shrink.

The legislature needs to quit its habit of looking for quick fixes and do what any teacher or administrator knows must be done. We need a true state-wide alternative education system and we need it before we lose more students forever.

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