Westside is an “alternative high school,” which can mean many things in the American education system. I’ve seen alternative schools in other cities where the curriculum is predominantly arts-based, or where the pedagogy is to stress group-learning. But here, alternative means “warehouse for students.” The curriculum is packet-based, and stresses making up credits since so many of the students have lost credits at their previous high schools.
Basically, students get packets in each of their classes and fill them out, which allows them to work fast to make up lost credits, and allows them to work at their own pace. It also means an entire class of English students, say, can be at different levels of English instruction and still only need one teacher.
When packet-based education was explained to me, I knew it wouldn’t be great for Ivan. I also knew that he was missing a semester’s-worth of credits for four classes as the result of the debacle the year before. I had asked about the other high school in the area, but it was large and had some of the same problems his previous school had. Ivan’s behavioral medicine practitioner and his advocate said it was perfect for him. His therapist thought it would be great, too. A few acquaintances said they liked the program. When we toured the school, the principal was so nice that I felt like Ivan should be there.
Even now I don’t know that I was wrong. Living in this narrow valley, I’m not sure what else there was for him. But I know now that all of these people were wrong, and that it is not a great place for Ivan, and not a great place for anyone.
To start with, we should talk about the packets as a pedagogy. Of course, they are terrible. Students get packets that often have readings and then questions about the readings. Some packets walk them through writing a simply 5-paragraph essay. But in none of them is critical thinking required. This is unsurprising since these are packets, but I was still somewhat surprised by this. I designed online education curriculum as a freelancer for a few years, and so I know how hard it is to design a curriculum that encourages and even requires critical thinking when so much of the relationship between student and teacher is changed to a relationship between student and text, or student and curriculum. For me, it meant I had to ask challenging questions, script multi-media—and then ask the curriculum design team to make that media for me—and find engaging videos and photos that would help in that endeavor. Even then I knew that if there wasn’t a teacher who was invested on the other end of this—if there wasn’t someone who was using that curriculum well—it wouldn’t matter. It was out of my hands.
I suppose, then, this is one way to say that I thought—I hoped—the teachers were use the packet curriculum as best they could to engage other students, Ivan included. I hoped that the recognition that credit attainment without learning was terrible for any student, but especially students who were, for many reasons, behind academically.
I had hoped too much in most cases.
Some of Ivan’s teachers really tried their best to do more. Or they included projects in their classes. Or they talked to Ivan about complicated math problems. Ivan was the only student in pre-calculus in the entire school, though, so that meant he was given access to an online program, and he could check-in with his teacher if he needed help. The teacher had other students in that class who were struggling with attaining enough math credits to graduate high school, so he could not give Ivan the attention he wanted, and frankly deserved.
It was like this—or worse—in all of his classes.
In his history class, the packets are so bad as to be ridiculous. One of his last ones—for Washington state history—included such poorly photocopied material that some of it was unreadable (several lines at the top and bottom having not made it onto the page). All of it was hard to read because of the poor quality of the copies, and because whomever did the copying could not be bothered to line anything up—thus every single page of reading is rotated haphazardly at different angles. The readings are so bad as to be comical—a news article from the Reagan era, copies of pages from what appears to be a government handbook, copies of pages from what might be a textbook—all of it mashed together with no clear sense of order or unity. To make sense of it is nearly impossible for anyone, even a college professor. The idea that someone could learn anything from this mess is laughable.
In essence, Ivan will have lost, by June, almost two academic years of learning. Two years where he wanted nothing more than to be engaged with his studies. Two years where we tried every way we could to make that happen. And still, here we are. He took pre-calculus at the college last term and is taking pre-calculus II this term. He loves taking math here and does well at it. But in all other ways, he’s lost all this time. He will have the credits, though. I guess that’s what they think is important.