The Pandemic Left Us Looking for Answers. We Found Them in Our Alternative Education Model.

On March 18, 2020, the principal brought me to a meeting with the superintendent, principals, and assistant principals from other high schools in the area. I knew this meeting was important when I saw all the other officials.

The first words that came out of my principal’s mouth were, “We may have to close the school for a few days.” After hearing this news, I was surprised and worried. We’ve never had to suddenly close a school before. Soon after, the meeting entered into a discussion about safer-at-home orders that had been put in place in Los Angeles County and how the school would enact those orders. At first, we thought school closures would last a week at the most. However, as we all know, it has lasted much longer.

As safe-stay-at-home orders extended from one week to one month indefinitely, I became more concerned about students and how the school closure would affect them. In addition, I was concerned about whether we would meet the academic, emotional and social needs of our students, especially for students who attend a non-traditional school.

Throughout the pandemic, discussions about student support have centered on traditional comprehensive schools. Traditional comprehensive schools are where most students receive an education. Students attend school Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. However, not all students go to comprehensive school. There are also students who attend an alternative school because the basic school does not meet their special needs.

As an alternative school teacher, I believe it is important to share how alternative schools support students during the pandemic and to understand the experiences of school staff and students from these schools.

An Alternative Educational Model: Alta Vista High School for Innovation

I am an assistant principal at Alta Vista Innovation High School (AVIHS), located in an urban area of ​​Los Angeles, California. AVIHS follows an independent study model of education. Independent study is a combination of self-directed learning where the student directs the learning path and a continuity model, a more personalized approach with instructions in smaller sizes). Under the independent study model, students are motivated by their own needs and goals while being supported and directed by a teacher who offers an individual curriculum.

AVIHS serves 500 high school students between the ages of 14 and 24. Most of these students are referred to the school by district counsellors, probation officers, or social service agencies. The student body reflects the community served by AVIHS; However, it focuses on students who have a lack of credit and are at risk of dropping out of high school. Here are some of the other notable characteristics and identities represented in our student body:

  • 99% eligible for free and discounted meals
  • Many students come from historically and racially marginalized backgrounds, including 42% black and African students and 50% Hispanic and Latino students
  • 33% of students are between 18 and 24 years old
  • 20% of learners of English
  • 15% of students with special needs
  • 10% parents

Student demographics reflect that students studying at AVIHS need more than academic support. Because of this demographic, AVIHS has become a School of Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Law (WIOA) and partnered with an outside agency to help our students work part-time while they earn their high school diplomas.

As a result of these partnerships, our students do not have to choose between earning a high school diploma or working to support their families. Our partners provide our students with an opportunity to work while ensuring that their academic progress is not interrupted. In addition, our partners and AVIHS are collaborating to ensure that students are on their way to graduation. Under these partnerships, our students thrive, continually attend school and complete academic credits while working. Then the epidemic struck. School closures and the transition to distance learning have affected our students like many others across the country. However, many working students saw their working hours reduced or their positions abolished.

Needless to say, our students were looking for answers and it was up to us to come up with solutions that would help them get through this situation.

Support through the pandemic

With safe-at-home orders ending in the 2019-2020 school year, the leadership team came together to discuss how we can support our students. After the meeting, we decided to create a task force comprising the school’s leadership team, staff, and students. When we collected views from staff members, we concluded that it is necessary to focus on three main areas: financial support, academic support, and psychological support.

  • Financial support: We agreed that it is important to help students find safe employment opportunities, especially those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Through our partnerships with WIOA, we have created an internship opportunity to teach students how to use Tik Tok and other social media as a marketing tool by creating school videos. Students were paid to create video content for our school’s social media accounts. In addition, we have provided meal packages that students can either pick up from the school or have someone from the leadership team deliver at their home. By focusing on these two areas, we have been able to ensure that students do not put themselves and their families at risk by leaving their homes to work, and we have also provided our students with money that they can use as they see fit.
  • Academic support: In addition to students’ financial resources, we also wanted to make sure that students could achieve their educational goals. While all students in Los Angeles attended school remotely, many of our students were also supporting their younger siblings or children. Knowing this, we realized that the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. class schedule would not work. To combat this problem, our school staff has become flexible to meet the needs of our students. We have expanded our hours for students; Teachers began to work intermittent shifts that catered to students’ schedules. Some teachers divide their daily schedules by working in the morning (8-11 a.m.) and later in the evening (5-8 p.m.). Others open weekend hours and teach students on Saturdays and Sundays.
  • mental support: Finally, we addressed mental health. Our school counselors have provided professional developments to our teachers and school staff on trauma-informed practices and how to best support our students during this time. We have also partnered with Care Solace to provide our students with any additional mental health support our students and their families need outside of school.

Focusing on the student in general and the three aspects of financial, academic and mental support ensures our students know that we are committed to their overall well-being.

Creating solutions for each student

Schools have always been, in my opinion, a safe place for students; It is where students receive help to support their academic goals, mental well-being, and daily living that some cannot access at home. Fortunately, the most significant change I’ve seen during the pandemic has been schools accelerating the pace they are adapting to meet the needs of their students. However, there is more we can do.

The pandemic has reinforced the lack of a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting students. Every student has their own needs, some of which cannot be met if our solutions focus only on traditional schools and student groups. That’s why we must share more information and best practices across our schools. The more we share about what schools do – traditional and alternative – the better we can support students.

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