My Sister Went to an “Alternative” School But That’s Not What Killed Her

The title of this recent exposé from Propublica jumped out at me: “‘Alternative’ Education: Using Charter Schools to Hide Dropouts and Game the System.” Incredulous, I read that “alternative schools” are “warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers.” The authors claim that these schools are almost exclusively for-profit charter schools that exist in order to enable regular schools to exercise a duplicitous endrun around the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the federal education law that “refashioned the yardstick for judging schools.” According to their premise, villainous charter magnates have crafted “profit centers” that troll the traditional education market in search of struggling students that schools are eager to disenroll in order to preserve high graduation rates and standardized test scores. These children — “cast-offs” in the authors’ parlance — are abandoned in order to activate “a silent release valve for high schools …that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform.”  

Why my incredulity? Because in the 1980’s — well before the advent of NCLB and well before New York State authorized its first charter school — one of my two younger sisters attended an alternative school on Long Island set within a traditional public school. 

I haven’t written before about my sister Carla. Her story is complicated and painful. I have noted elsewhere that my parents availed themselves of America’s time-honored form of school choice by moving their three daughters to better school districts as fast as they could. We started out on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx but just before I was to start P.S. 033, already a mediocre elementary school, we moved to Queens, where all three of us attended P.S. 115. While I was in junior high at P.S. 172 and getting ready to attend Martin Van Buren High School (currently one of Mayor de Blasio’s “Renewal Schools” where 14% of students graduate college/career-ready), we moved out of the City to the stellar public school district of Roslyn on the North Shore of Long Island.

Carla was smart and articulate, equipped with a wicked sense of humor and a mean streak a mile long.  She was also mentally ill from a young age at a time when psychiatric disorders carried enormous stigmas and either my parents chose not to have her classified as eligible for special education or they were not ready to confront the severity of her disease.  (De Nile isn’t just a river in Egypt.)  Her schoolwork was good enough to get by, even by Roslyn standards, but by the time she got to high school — by then she had started using drugs (we didn’t know the term “self-medicating” then)  and acting out — she struggled academically. But, lucky for us, Roslyn High School had an alternative school called “School Within a School” (SWS).

Carla wasn’t “cast off” in order to preserve the lofty student metrics achieved by our Long Island school district.  No edu-entrepreneur reaped profits from her enrollment in Roslyn High School’s alternative SWS.  No one (to quote the Propublica piece) was out to “manipulate the accountability system” or “exploit a loophole” or create a “symbiotic relationship” or evade NCLB.  Instead, my Dad, a NYC social studies teacher and my Mom, a NYC school social worker, decided that Carla’s needs could best be served in a non-traditional setting.

Contrary to the Propublica narrative, alternative schools — places for students who preferred a non-traditional school structure, either within typical schools or in separate facilities — were relatively common starting in the last part of the twentieth century.  This 1974  New York State catalogue of alternative schools describes Roslyn’s SWS as a “program for students who feel they can function more effectively outside of the regular school.” A 1986 article in the New York Times profiles six Nassau County districts, including Roslyn, that used this model. In Great Neck’s alternative school, said science teacher Jim Rooney, “we started off with no system – if you could breathe through your nose, you could get in.” Gradually these schools evolved to attract a wide spectrum of students, from “high-powered” scholars to others who “struggle with a normal high school course load.”

Carla was in the latter group. While my other sister and I remember SWS students as the “cool kids,”  students like Carla  who just didn’t “fit in” academically or socially were in there too.  And if Carla wanted to spend most of her time in the art room (she loved ceramics) then she spent most of her time in the art room. There were no grades. There was little accountability. And, contrary to Propublica’s thesis, there was no  looming No Child Left Behind law and no profiteering charter schools eager to cash in.

For some students, the freedom and lack of structure in SWS programs unleashed academic prowess. For Carla, the program simply enabled her family and teachers to ignore warning signs. She got a paper diploma but little else, just like the kids three decades later profiled in the Propublica study. She even went to a lowly-rated state college and (with some finagling by my parents and herself) graduated. Over the years she acquired a profusion of diagnoses — schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, psychosis, severe depression, anxiety, panic attacks — coupled with drug  addiction. Despite access to countless therapists and psychiatric drugs and electroshock therapy and stays in rehab units, she died four years ago of a heroin overdose.

This is Carla’s story, simplified for the limitations of a blog post. The Propublica piece is not a blog post: It is  journalism that professes to tell the whole story yet is rendered simplistic by an agenda that seeks villains and heroes instead of ambiguous and complex realities. This happens all the time within the world of education policy and politics. Poor students can’t learn until we fix poverty; calling out poverty as a factor in student learning is just an excuse for poor instruction. Charter schools are good and traditional schools are bad; traditional schools are good and charter schools are bad.  Accountability is the panacea for historically-underserved students; accountability is a conspiracy dreamed up by standardized test companies and union-busters.

None of the above statements are true because either/ors are rare in education.  Propublica didn’t prove that alternative charter schools “game the system.” Propublica proved that simplistic reductions distort complex truths.

What do you think?

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