Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 1

ALPHA: A Survivor

Attended by both at-risk and volunteer students, this Michigan alternative school program has survived for so long in part because it offers learning opportunities tailored to each individual.

Some of us are old enough to remember that era of youthful idealism, drugs, rock and roll, and disdain for authority, when young people made common cause against the police, the military, the schools, and those of us over 30. Sit-ins and walk-outs were common in the high schools. The Little Red Schoolbook (1971) advocated anarchy in the schools, and Postman and Weingartner wrote Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969).
“The times they are a-changin',” Bob Dylan noted, and educators responded. We designed classrooms-without-walls, schools-within-schools, and even schools-without-walls. Many of us were intrigued by the ideas of A. S. Neil, John Holt, Abraham Maslow, Neil Postman, and Carl Rogers. Maybe the gurus' insights were misunderstood, misapplied, or wrong, but we were energized by the upheaval and threw ourselves into educational reform.
One of these reforms was the alternative school movement. Formed with good intentions, alternative schools tried to harness the rebellious spirit of the times, to be creative, and to teach something. Many programs were highly innovative, introducing a wide variety of subjects and strategies and serving a diverse population. Others were miniatures of traditional high schools but with smaller class sizes and watered-down courses for “problem” students. The words “alternative schools” came to mean schools for the unruly and unmanageable, or—a minority opinion— for high-spirited, creative, and idealistic youth. Almost every school district had an alternative school that administrators could either point to with pride or steer visitors away from.
Then came the blight. Many programs blossomed, withered, and died, coinciding roughly with the life-cycle of the leisure suit. Program directors and others often used a convenient excuse: The times they are a-changin'—again. With the emergence of less strident student populations, any program surviving beyond the mid-80s was considered an anachronism. “Programs of this type are no longer needed,” concluded one teacher in a letter recommending the end of his program. “The kinds of students they are designed for are no longer here.” Of the six programs in suburban Detroit studied by Martin Gold and David Mann in 1984, only one, ALPHA, remains.

ALPHA's Birth

This year the Alternative Learning Program for the High school Age (ALPHA) enters its 23rd year since the first participants pulled on their raggedy bell-bottom jeans and platform boots, untucked the bottoms of their tie-dyed shirts, and headed for ALPHA's first day ever. A collage of weathered black-and-white photos posted in ALPHA's rec room convinces today's close-cropped and scrubbed ALPHAteers that the past was indeed a foreign land where people did things differently. ALPHA's 20th reunion attracted many of these early members who fondly recalled their participation and growth in an experience called ALPHA.
It began in 1972, when administrators in the middle-class, mostly white, suburban community of Livonia, Michigan, asked four teachers—our Founders—to produce an “out-of-the-box” program to help students with poor attendance. The Founders produced a design that anticipated many reforms educators are grappling with today: site-based management, student and teacher empowerment, community service, parental involvement, choice within public schools, individualized learning opportunities, reflective teaching and learning, teachers as staff developers, teachers as advisors, and grade elimination.
The Founders recognized that poor attendance was a symptom of larger problems, and they reflected this in their design. Because of their efforts, attendance of ALPHA students improved dramatically, and so did everything else. It's their design that largely contributes to ALPHA's longevity.

The Structure of ALPHA

The Founders created a program that allows our students more independence and that allows teachers to work more closely with each student. The ALPHA program consists of a daily two-hour seminar with about 25 students per group. ALPHA's three teachers function as group leaders and counselors, while a supportive high school principal acts as administrator and liaison with the other high school principals. He oversees the program, although most decisions are entrusted to the teachers on site. Students usually—but not always—return to their traditional high schools for classes. They must complete traditional Livonia graduation requirements, but are encouraged to do so in a variety of ways, including ALPHA workshop classes, independent study using learning contracts, community service, and work experience. Students can also earn credit for community college classes.
Each leader is responsible for one group and usually sits in on another group to support that group's leader. Working together and learning from one another, we don't experience the isolation most teachers feel. More important, we set aside time each week to critique one another's work, based on our observations. We also find it helpful for each of us to know all the students.

Who Joins ALPHA?

We enroll any student from each of the district's three high schools (although we maintain a balance of gender, grade, and source school), with one stipulation: One half of our students must be recommended by the school administration from a list of students with attendance problems. The other half apply directly to us and may enroll for any reason. The volunteers tend to be more academically oriented with fewer discipline problems. A large number of the students who shine in this environment, however, are those recommended to us by the principals.
Our enrollment practice distinguishes us from most programs with shorter shelf-lives. Our students are not sick kids sent to us for healing to be returned to the “regular” school—cured. The presence of all kinds of students, from cheerleaders, A students, and jocks to “burnouts” and E students, underlines that fact. The students know half the students are there because they have “attendance problems,” not because they are defective human beings. Because it's not a program for “losers,” they behave in positive ways. This, plus the focus on living effectively, eliminates the discipline problems and boredom found in programs that gain a “loser” image. You've heard the argument that “If it's good for the gifted, it should also be available to others.” You probably haven't heard it turned around: We believe that if it's good for “at-risk” students, it should be available to others. In ALPHA's case, it is.
We're often asked what's in it for the “good” students? First, they learn about “effective living,” which is rarely taught in traditional schools; second, they practice leadership skills; and third, everyone appreciates the sense of belonging they feel in ALPHA, including the “good” students.
All students are volunteers; principals merely recommend. We contact all recommended students. If they choose not to enroll, fine. If they wish to enroll, they follow the same procedures of those volunteering directly. Prospective members and their parents hold a conference with a teacher, and all parties must sign a detailed agreement before the student is enrolled. No one must enroll in ALPHA.

The ALPHA Seminar

The most essential component of the program, the ALPHA seminar teaches one of the most important subjects in anyone's life: effective living. If you think of time management, assertiveness training, stress management, and risk-taking, then you have an idea of ALPHA's mission. Our students learn about goal setting and achievement, effective communication, and problem solving while developing their interpersonal and leadership skills. They explore topics such as drug abuse, sexual responsibility, and career choice. We tell our students that, while they won't learn math or science in the seminar, they will do better in math, in science, in relationships, and in all areas of their lives because of the skills they learn in ALPHA.
Three practices make the seminar particularly effective. First, students participate in an extended orientation that teaches them how to work in a group. Students learn carefully structured group behaviors, and they become less and less dependent on the group leader.
Second, students engage in “experiential” learning—role playing, simulations, real challenges (community service), tailored challenges (wall climbing), or any other appropriate activity that can be observed and processed. These activities keep the program reality-based, with students using their own experiences to form understandings. For instance, we encourage students with disputes to bring them to the group so that they can practice conflict resolution.
Finally, no grades are given. Instead, students earn credit only. Perfect seminar and conference attendance, completed community service hours, and fulfilled contracts will earn full credit. Otherwise, students earn the dreaded partial credit, which could affect their graduation.
Students keep a journal on the seminar that includes both diary-type entries and entries that vent disagreements or criticisms of the program or of us. This helps to head off problems and can give us new ideas. We respond every day, which keeps us in touch with each person.

Beyond the Seminar

The seminar is at the heart of what we do, but, except for the people who visit us, its success is understood only indirectly through such things as numbers graduated, attendance percentages, and our newsletter. A handful of administrators, counselors, and an occasional board member have visited and are acquainted with the seminar sessions. They become our strong supporters. If we relied on the seminar alone, however, ALPHA may not have survived. It's the activities beyond the seminar that contribute to our longevity.
Community service. ALPHA students do about 16 hours of community service a semester. These projects are of their own design and include working with hospitalized children, visiting nursing homes, cleaning up a river, helping in a soup kitchen, working on the AIDS quilt, and supervising blood donations. These activities generate a great deal of involvement and encourage student leadership.
Independent study. No ALPHA student needs to set foot in a traditional high school to graduate. Theoretically students may do it all in ALPHA. As a practical matter, that rarely happens. The independent study design allows students to make a wide variety of independent study choices, from traditional high school classes to clowning (before real audiences) to auditing college classes.
Work experience. Students may receive elective work experience credit for standard after-school jobs at fast-food restaurants, churches, nursing homes, preschools, and more. We monitor the jobs students hold, giving credit based on pay stubs, and we inquire about any employers we are not familiar with.
Conference attendance. Each student must hold a conference with his or her group leader several times a semester to discuss academic progress, careers, and relationships. Advice is rarely given; instead, the leader and student explore options and their consequences together.
Newsletter. Our parent newsletter highlights various parenting skills, informs parents about the program, and enlists their help in achieving our goals and in setting goals for their teens. Principals, counselors, central office administrators, and board members also receive the newsletter, learn of our efforts, and often offer their support.
Parent involvement. Guest speakers, parenting sessions, potluck dinners, fun runs, student roasts of teachers in front of the parents—anything to get parents to join us—are some of the ideas that come from our Leadership Team. This team— including parents, students, and administrators— holds regular evening meetings to discuss the direction of the program and to plan parent nights. We phone and send letters to parents routinely. We expect their participation.

ALPHA's Success

ALPHA's track record? No vandalism at the school. No violence. None. Grades improve. Students and teachers enjoy being in ALPHA, and they like and support one another. ALPHA has three times more applicants than can be enrolled, and once enrolled, students don't want to leave. Attendance is consistently above 90 percent, and ALPHA is credited with helping the district maintain a high graduation rate (97 percent).
Adjoining districts, aware of ALPHA's success, regularly ask if we will take their students. Parents report better relationships with their teens. Graduates attribute their successes to ALPHA, from going to college or getting a job in a car-wash, to getting a movie part or owning a business.
What helped ALPHA survive? Program design? Most definitely. But so did luck, dedication, positive publicity, and strong support from students, parents, administration, and the board of education.
ALPHA students develop a strong sense of belonging. For some it is all the family they have. They resent criticism of the program and will defend it whenever they hear it attacked. This feeling of family creates a bond that continues long after graduation. “Once in ALPHA, always in ALPHA.”

Gold, M., and D. Mann. (1984). Expelled to a Friendlier Place: A Study of Effective Alternative Schools. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press.

Postman, N., and C. Weingartner. (1969). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Delacorte Press.

Hanson, S., and J. Jensen. (1971). The Little Red Schoolbook. New York: Pocket Books. (Translated from Danish by Berit Thornberry, original copyright 1969).

G. Michael Abbott has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 194211.jpg
The New Alternative Schools
Go To Publication