Conventional wisdom holds that alternative school should serve no more than 90 students to maintain the close interpersonal relationships between students and staff that are the hallmark of these schools. However, Union Alternative School has gone against convention and in 2012 doubled its enrollment to 200 students.
Principal Richard Storm feels that the reason to have an alternative school is to try new, different approaches to reach students who have not been previously successful in school. “Though an expansion of this magnitude is logistically daunting, our goal is to serve more students who are in need of our services while still maintaining the small school atmosphere that works so well for our students.”
The physical layout of the school’s campus helps to maintain the feel of a small school. Classes are held in three different buildings, all within 30 yards distance. Therefore, all 200 students are not in the same place at the same time except during assemblies. This separation keeps students from feeling overwhelmed by crowded conditions.
However, it’s also important to have all students and staff members become a cohesive unit that all interact and develop relationships with everyone. To accomplish this unity, students and staff are free to travel from one building to another before and after school and during breaks to speak to friends in other parts of the campus.
During lunch, students and staff mingle and relax either in the school cafeteria, in one of the classroom buildings, or in a picnic area between buildings. Foosball, ping pong and billiard tables are available for student recreation when classes aren’t in session.
“Both the staff and the students work hard to develop an atmosphere based on kindness, mutual respect, and trust. Many of our students have had negative experiences or significant lack of success in school before they come here, so we give them the opportunity to get off to a new start in a new environment with the slate wiped clean of past problems.
“All of the students come here voluntarily, and they all sign student contracts in which they agree to attend regularly, to study hard, to go by the rules, and to treat others respectfully. We have never failed to graduate a student who has been willing to abide by that contract.
“Life doesn’t give us many chances to put our mistakes behind us and start anew. In the Alternative School, the students are grateful to have this opportunity, and very few fail to succeed in this environment,” he continued.
Besides what Storm considers to be an “all-star teaching staff,” several other forms of support are available to students and parents. Head Counselor Tammy Garcia organizes the efforts of a wide range of counselors who help students overcome situations outside of school which have negatively impacted their schooling. These include a full-time CREOKS therapist, and parenting counselors, a social worker, a rehab specialist, a school psychologist, a Native American counselor, a homeless liaison, a school resource officer, a student assistance counselor, and college and career specialists who work part-time at the Alternative School.
“We know that almost all of the students who attend Union Alternative School are bright enough that they should be able to do well in school, but that there are situations or behaviors which have distracted them from their studies and caused failure or diminished success. Therefore, we believe that the counselors are just as important as the teachers in getting these students to succeed academically.
“We believe that--if the counselors can help students to overcome social issues, to learn to solve family problems, to get students not to poison themselves with drugs or alcohol, to get students to where they’re not walking around with the weight of the world on their shoulders—then the academics will come around because now students will be able to focus on their studies,” said Storm.
“I spend a great amount of time trying to get students to believe in themselves and trying to get others to understand that this is not a place where all the bad kids have to go. In literal truth, no one has to go here. We only accept students who apply for the program, who go through an informational forum, who attend a private interview, and who are ready to commit to a student contract. We can’t help students who don’t want to be helped, but we certainly can help those who do.”