What happens when Johnny can’t read, write or pray in a traditional classroom?

For most of us, “school” means a traditional classroom-our remembered niche in a vast, homogeneous, seemingly unworkable system that still somehow produces one of the world’s better-educated populations. For growing numbers of families, though, the old school just won’t do. In Dallas and around the country, alternative schools are springing up to meet the educational, social and spiritual needs of thousands of students.

The urge toward improving public schools, which culminated in last year’s controversial Texas school reform legislation, has begun to have its trickle-down effects. But despite those recent gains-and the plethora of private schools that preceded reform-alternative approaches to teaching continue to flourish.

Locally, many families have quit looking for the promised land in conventional schools and struck out for educational Edens of their own. The number of Christian schools in Dallas has tripled in the past decade. The burgeoning home-school movement goes even further, discards the system with its accredited teachers, and trusts the child’s education to his parents. And the intensive focus of traditional teaching (coupled with un-traditional levels of funding) in the South Dallas Learning Centers has meant a true alternative to busing and low grades for some minority students.

Whether Johnny wants less peer pressure or more academic pressure, whether he’s vexed by no pass, no play or no pray, no way, there’s a school somewhere in Dallas to answer (or allow) his prayers, give him space or quicken his pace. In this report, we examine five educational options chosen by some Dallas families.

Home-schoolers:The family vs. the state

FOR THE CHILDREN of Kirk and Beverly McCord of Richardson, no school bell rings. No hallways teem with eager students hurrying to beat the tardy bell. The McCord children do go to school, but their schoolhouse is their home; their teachers are their parents.

The McCords are part of what some call an educational megatrend-home schooling-and others call a crime. An estimated 50,000 children nationwide attend “school” at home, often in flagrant disregard of compulsory school attendance laws. For several reasons, a dramatic increase in home-schooled children has occurred since the last decade, when educators thought their number to be around 10,000.

More than 40 states have given some kind of legal sanction to parents who school their children at home, but Texas still officially regards home schooling as criminal activity. Numerous prosecutions have resulted in the filing of a class action lawsuit on behalf of all Texas home-schoolers and those who provide instruction curriculum for the Texas home-schoolers against the Arlington Independent School District and all public school districts. These parents claim their children are exempt from public school attendance because they attend “private school” within the privacy of their own homes. Since the Legislature has never bothered to define a private school, a Tarrant County judge is being asked to offer his interpretation.

But the home-schooling movement is more than just a legal battle. It’s a cultural struggle between religion and education, between the legitimate interest of society in educating the young and freedom of choice; between what some see as the meddling of “big government” and family privacy. Are the home-schoolers educating their children or merely providing a ruse for truancy? Should they be branded as outlaws or left to the privacy of their convictions?

According to Patricia Lines, past director of the Law and Education Center at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, the dramatic rise in home-schoolers within the last decade is due primarily to parents who home school for religious reasons. “Other parents object to the political values they find in schools,” Lines says. “Some want to share more time with their children, while others are geographically isolated from schools by career or lifestyle.” But all seem to be linked to each other by a common philosophy that shuns institutional help in favor of self-help. The home-schoolers tend to think the individual should take charge of his life, rather than delegate that responsibility to the state. Most representative of this attitude are parents who home school for “libertarian reasons,” says Suzanne Concelman, educational consultant with the Harris County Department of Education. Concelman considers these parents “survivalists, earth-mother types. Give them five acres of land and they’ll do it all themselves.”

KIRK AND BEVERLY McCord are practicing Dallas attorneys, practicing Christian fundamentalists and founders of the Texas Association for Home Education with its 1,100 newsletter subscribers. They maintain their law practice and the association’s office out of their home, which doubles as the school for their three children.

The McCords’ reasons for home schooling are inseparable from their beliefs as Christians. Their back-to-the-Bible approach to education not only puts prayer back in their school but “teaches God in every subject,” says Beverly McCord. What they want most is to give their children a strong spiritual foundation that won’t crack under the stresses of the outside world. At some point, the McCords will “mainstream” their children into a more conventional school setting, but with their Christian values locked firmly into place.

As attorneys, the McCords have made it their practice to represent home-schoolers against what they perceive as “outright persecution by the state of Texas.” According to Kirk McCord, in the last three years school district officials have instituted 120 cases against home-schoolers. Sixty have resulted in formal complaints being filed in court. Of the cases that have gone to trial, half have been lost by home-schoolers. The McCords agree that the state has a valid interest in seeing its citizens educated, but they believe that interest is outweighed by a parent’s freedom to choose the method and manner of that education.

Beverly McCord loves to read to her children at home, but only from great works of literature and children’s books published before 1940-books, she says, that “were still teaching a fundamental Christian morality.” Her children read from McGuffey’s First Reader, originally published in 1837. “Public school texts are full of negative literature and deal with depressing themes like nuclear war and divorce,” Beverly McCord says. Although Beverly speaks four languages, she wants her children to “know the beauty of the English language.” Poetry and singing comprise a large part of her children’s daily lesson plan, which also includes phonetics, math and of course Bible studies.

The McCords believe home schooling offers a better education than a private Christian school. They claim that their children are academically two to three years ahead of their peers. With home schooling year-round, the McCords expect their children to be intellectually ready for college at age 14.

REBECCA AND JERRY Scott (not their real names) express the same fears about state interference in their lives. Unconcerned with the outcome of the Tarrant County lawsuit, the Scotts will continue to home school their children regardless of the decision. Jerry works for Dallas County as a draftsman. Rebecca, an artist, holds a master’s degree in biology and is confident of her teaching ability. She confesses that “home schooling is definitely not for everyone,” but revels in working with her children. “No one knows my children better than I do. I know what motivates them and what bores them.” Scott fears that a classroom teacher confronted with the varying attention spans of 30 students may lose a few along the way. “I wouldn’t want mine to slip through the cracks,” she says.

For the Scotts, home schooling-like home birthing and home remedies-is a natural extension of the simple life, which no longer looks to institutions to solve all problems, but recognizes the role of the individual in coping with life’s dilemmas. “The school system can’t even guarantee that my children will come out functioning, literate members of society,” says Rebecca Scott. “Why should I be forced to turn them over when I can do a better job myself?”

The Scotts became upset with the conventional classroom environment when they saw how negative peer groups influenced their children. “Whether it’s the class bully or the class clown, the bad kids always have a way of infecting the good-and the teachers were afraid to discipline,” Rebecca Scott says.

Although her children have not been tested, Rebecca feels they are a year or two ahead of their contemporaries. But like many home-school families, the Scotts refuse to submit them to standardized testing.

Is the state’s interest in an educated citizenry being satisfied by parents who teach their children at home? Although research on the subject is scarce, the two states that have tested home-schooled children, Alaska and Arizona, have concluded that they perform at above-average levels when measured by nationally standardized tests. A Los Angeles study draws the same conclusion. Home schoolers are also quick to list noted intellectuals like Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison who were failures in conventional schools, and just as quick to recite stories of a young man, schooled entirely at home, who was admitted to Harvard last year.

Texas educators argue that public school students are better prepared for college because they have acquired their learning skills in the same structured classroom environment found in most colleges. Educators Worry about the competency of home-schooling parents who must master a wide variety of progressively complex subjects. “Many parents are simply not equipped to teach their children effectively,” says DISD Superintendent Linus Wright. “If everyone is inclined to go his own way and prescribe his own training, we’ll end up in worse shape than we are now,” Wright says.

PERHAPS THE GREATEST fear among traditional educators is that should home schooling be decriminalized, the door will be open for less “high-minded” parents who have no intention of teaching their children at home. Says Concelman, “There are a lot of bad parents out there who don’t care about education and just want the school districts off their backs.”

The most vehement opponents of home schooling see the movement as subverting one of the cherished goals of the public schools: socialization. They view home-schoolers as an elitist group of segregationists, perpetuating their prejudice by sheltering their children from the rest of society, denying them the benefits of learning how to get along in the real world with culturally diverse groups of people.

“They want to play by a different set of rules,” says Tony Bonilla, a member of Governor White’s Select Committee on Public Education headed by H. Ross Perot. “When the home-schoolers came before the committee they were uncompromising, suspicious of any suggestion that the state needed to regulate them.” Many states that permit home schooling do have regulatory requirements. Some require standardized testing; others require parents to submit resumés of their academic credentials. All make some attempt to monitor whether the children are being educated.

Because the issue of home schooling inspires so much passion, any decision reached by the Tarrant County court will almost certainly be appealed. Home-schooling attorneys estimate that the case could be tied up in court for several years. If the appellate courts haven’t reached a decision by 1987, the Legislature will no doubt be forced to consider the issue once again.

At the heart of all the legal questions about home schools being private schools, about governmental meddling and freedom of choice, is a basic ethical question: Are these children being properly educated? If the Tarrant County judge thinks they are, he may rule that the state’s interest in education is being protected. If the court holds that home schooling keeps children separate-but unequal, parents like the McCords and the Scotts will have to keep breaking the law to save their childrens’ souls. -Mark Donald

Minorities: After busing, renewed commitment

TAMARA STO-VALL is a soft-spoken, brown-eyed little girl who at age 11 is already a crusty veteran of a rapidly changing educational system. During grades K-3, Tamara attended Charles Rice Elementary School, a three-block walk from her home. But that changed when she entered the fourth grade. Because Rice has an all-black student population, an existing federal court order required Tamara to ride a school bus more than 12 miles out of her South Dallas neighborhood to mix with white children at Martha Turner Reilly Elementary School in far Northeast Dallas. Now it’s changed again. When Tamara reached the sixth grade she was sent back to Rice, after a federal judge endorsed a plan by school officials to boost the achievement scores of students in grades four through six attending Rice and two other South Dallas schools-a new program that could end forced busing in Dallas, which still affects over 7,500 students.

School officials have heralded the “centers” program as offering “a new approach to instruction in grades 4-6.” But others view it more as an infusion of money, equipment and teaching talent into proven instructional methods. As such, the programs at Rice and the other South Dallas Centers may be more of an alternative to forced busing than any variation on remedial teaching theory. But for the Stovalls, the alternative is a welcome one.

Tamara’s reassignment to Rice was good news to her parents, Willie and Gwendolyn Stovall. Although the Stovalls admit that Tamara never had a white friend until she attended Reilly, they never wanted their daughter to leave her neighborhood school in the first place.

“We don’t believe in busing,” says Willie Stovall. “But I’d hate to see it go back to all-white and all-black schools. I really wish the neighborhoods were more ethnically mixed.”

Because Mrs. Stovall graduated from Rice Elementary more than two decades ago, she has become an expert of sorts about the school, located in a South Dallas neighborhood of modest wood-frame houses near the intersection of Oakland and Hatcher. Since then, she has watched all six of her daughters -ages 9 to 21-attend Rice and a few of them leave in midstream to attend Reilly, even though she never agreed with the notion that a bus ride to North Dallas would do anything to improve their education. On the contrary, Mrs. Stovall applauds a year-old court order of U.S Dist. Judge Barefoot Sanders that she says has returned Rice to where it was before busing. “It’s just begun to get back to the way it was when I was there,” she says. “I can see the pride back at Rice. The children have more self-esteem and the teachers care. We’re once again realizing the best things are right here in our own neighborhood.”

Tamara says she’s glad to be back in her neighborhood school and that she never really felt welcome at Reilly. She agrees with her parents, who say that the black kids who attended Reilly were not challenged by teachers like the white kids. “I don’t think the teachers inspired the kids,” says Willie. “It’s different here. Maybe [the teachers] are more concerned because the parents are only a few blocks away.”

Tamara’s parents have noticed that since she’s been back at Rice, their daughter comes home from school less tired because she doesn’t have to ride a bus. There were more books in the Rice library last year and Tamara was introduced to her first computer terminal, but more importantly, she says her grades and attitude have both improved. “I have to work harder to make my grades [at Rice] than I did at Reilly,” says Tamara, an “A” student.

In April 1984, Judge Sanders granted the Dallas Independent School District unprecedented cutbacks in its busing program by ordering the return of more than 1,300 fourth- through sixth-grade school children to learning centers near their homes last fall.

For the federal courts in Dallas, Sanders’ order represented an about-face. DISD officials have always maintained that forced busing per se would not improve educational achievement for minority students, and national studies in recent years, for the most part, have failed to support the idea that integrated settings created by busing have improved student achievement. To complicate the issue, the white flight brought on by school busing has created another problem: decreasing white student enrollment. While district-wide white student enrollment in 1976 was 38.1 percent, by 1983 it had dropped to 24.7 percent. By 1984, about 100 of the district’s 178 schools were predominantly minority, and some minority students were being bused to predominantly minority schools.

Sanders’ most recent court opinion, which partially rescinded his 1982 school desegregation order, challenged DISD officials to put up or shut up. Although he acknowledged that he wanted to find a solution other than busing, his order was not without strings attached; the reduction of busing was accompanied by a mandate to rapidly increase the achievement of minority students by implementing smaller classes and special learning programs in three elementary schools, including Charles Rice, H.S. Thompson and Pearl C. Anderson.

In his new order, Sanders praised DISD officials for their creativity and their offer to spend an additional $1 million on the three schools. But he also vented his anger over the traditionally low achievement scores of South Dallas students. “The current achievement levels for these students are appalling, far below norms for the district,” Sanders said in his order. “More than four-fifths of these pupils are below the national norm; nearly three-fifths rank in the lowest 30th percentile nationally.” Therefore, Sanders ordered school officials to make good on their promise to reduce annually by 10 percent the number of South Dallas students scoring below the 30th and 50th percentile on the reading portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills at the South Dallas Learning Centers. School officials say the goals are “extremely ambitious.”

The three schools have maintained a l-to-20 teacher-student ratio (district-wide the ratio is roughly l-to-27) and have gone back to a “self-contained” classroom concept, essentially meaning that the students have one teacher for basic subjects and special teachers for such subjects as art, music and physical education.

TAMARA’S GRADES IMPROVED, but Rice was the only one of the three schools that completely met the goals of the court order during the first year of operation. Reading test results show that in the spring of 1984, about 50 percent of the fourth-through sixth-graders at Rice were reading below the 30th percentile; in 1985, the number dropped to 31 percent. Likewise, in the 50th percentile category, the percentage of students dropped from 73 percent in 1984 to 61 percent in 1985, more than satisfying the requirements of Sanders’ new court order.

The gains were less impressive at the other two South Dallas Learning Centers. At the Thompson Learning Center, the number of students scoring below the 30th percentile decreased 14 percent, but at the 50th percentile the decrease was only 6 percent.

Students attending the Anderson center failed to meet either of the two court-ordered goals of reducing by 10 percent the number of students scoring below the second percentile levels. At Anderson, the number of students scoring below the 30th percentile decreased by only 8 percent; at the 50th percentile, the decrease was only 1 percent. Officials attribute the disappointing results at Anderson to excessive enrollment, which they say makes cohesive effort on the part of the school staff very difficult. Hence, they have recommended a change in school attendance zones that would cut the school’s enrollment nearly in half.

While school officials were disappointed that the goals were not met at all three schools, they claim the latest achievement score results do show that, educationally speaking, the students are better off in their neighborhood schools than in the schools to which they were bused. Last February the district took a similar proposal to Judge Sanders to extend the learning centers concept to West Dallas, a proposal that would have eliminated a need to bus some 1,800 minority students to North Dallas. Sanders is proceeding very cautiously, however. After hearing testimony on the district’s request, he rejected it, claiming he couldn’t issue a “blank check” to the district until he had clearer evidence as to how the South Dallas Learning Centers were doing.

Dallas School Supterintendent LinusWright says he’s happy with the year-old program. “I feel this concept will bridge the gapbetween minority and Anglo students, andthat we can reach our district-wide goal ofhaving 85 percent of our students on gradelevel by the end of this decade,” says Wright.”I think now we’ve convinced most peoplethat we’re willing to put our money whereour mouth is.” -Eric Miller

Christians: God in the classroom

WHILE EDUCATORS in public schools across the country have been scrambling to revive the flagging old-school standards of reading, writing and arithmetic, more than one million American young people have abandoned public schools in search of a fourth “R”-religion. The conservative or fundamental Christian schools in which they’re currently enrolled make up the fastest growing segment of U.S. education-three new schools open every day-and their supporters claim they give their children the kind of education the public schools of yesteryear provided them: Absolute, universal values by which to live and through which to interpret their world.

The old-fashioned virtues of good manners and strict discipline are emphasized among these universal values, and some critics worry they’re taken to extremes. Undoubtedly some schools that class themselves as “Christian” are overly harsh and academically anemic, but other Christian schools are exceptional. Last year, Stanford-Binet Achievement Tests ranked 100,000 Christian school students more than a year ahead of national norms. Although the wide variance in recruitment standards must be kept in mind when comparisons are made, average combined Scholastic Achievement Tests scores show local Christian schools an average of 150 points below the average scores of other local private schools, but still nearly 200 points ahead of the DISD.

Dan and Sharlyn Majors made the decision to send their three children to Trinity Christian Academy in Addison because of what they, following the late theologian Francis Schaeffer, call their “Christian world view”-an outlook based on the belief that the Bible is true and that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. “Christianity embraces the whole spectrum of life,” Dan Majors says, paraphrasing Schaeffer, “and is relevant to every discipline that is true-science, literature and politics.”

IN FACT, SOME Christian schools boast mention of God in every lesson of every subject. History is the following of God’s handiwork through time. Science is the study of Creation, with just enough evolutionary theory (emphasis on theory) thrown in to give students kindling for arguments to refute it. A math text published by Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), an ultraconservative for-profit organization which sells curricula to more than 6,000 schools and half a million pupils worldwide, poses this word problem: “Ace and his friend went soul winning on five streets. There were nine houses on each street. To how many houses did they go?”

Not all Christian schools go to such lengths. Some merely work to make sure that the viewpoints discussed in their classrooms include a variety of Christian opinions presided over by a teacher who can add scriptural grounding to discussions. At schools such as Trinity, pupils are encouraged to take turns arguing each side in debates over issues such as abortion. The school’s stated goal is to help students learn to think independently.

The public schools, Dan Majors says, make independent thought almost impossible because of the hostility they foster toward Christianity. He tells the story of a Portland, Oregon, teacher who was sought out by the administration of her school and told not to mention Christ at Christmas or Easter. “I imagine that if I were a teacher I could celebrate my Hindu faith or Eastern mysticism fine. These days public schools are more sympathetic to anyone else’s beliefs-even homosexuals-than those of Christians.”

John Schimmer, a former public school principal and superintendent who is now a regional director with the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), is careful not to pit Christian schools against the public system. He admits that the majority of public school teachers do not have the time or desire to endorse a secular crusade. Schimmer says he recognizes that public schools in our society must be secular; he doesn’t think it would be right to force Christian views on every child. For that reason, he says, in a pluralistic society both systems are essential: “We don’t want to constantly have to undo everything our children learn in school. Call it indoctrination if you want; that isn’t necessarily a bad word. We grow up [in public schools] learning that if the world says it, it must be right. I don’t think church attendance twice a week is enough to offset that thinking. Our schools exist to reinforce and undergird what is taught at home and at church.”

Waunee Taliaferro, a former public school teacher whose children also attend Trinity, says she thinks it is confusing for young children to be taught one thing is right and valid at home and then in school learn that another perspective is not only acceptable, but that the views they’ve learned at home are not even open for discussion. In their formative years, she says, such a crossfire of conflicting opinion is more than children can handle.

Still, even in the evangelical Protestant community, the concept of Christian school education is controversial. Dr. Paul Kienel, executive director of ACSI, estimates that only 20 percent of evangelical Christians are sympathetic to the Christian school movement. The Southern Baptist Convention continues to encourage its members to hang tight with the public schools, in the belief that Christians must not withdraw their influence from the melting pot. But Schimmer shoots down the idea that children from Christian homes should serve as “missionaries” in the troubled public schools. “What missionary,” he asks, “does God send out unprepared?”

AS MORE AND more families withdraw from public schools, some Christian school proponents predict the public system will slowly wither away in favor of a widespread return to the church and home for basic education. If Christian schools are to continue to share more of the burden of educating our children, parents must have some criteria for determining if the schools are truly well-qualified. State guidance in that process is no longer an option; the Texas Education Agency has ceased to accredit private schools.

Schimmer’s ACSI is a service organization offering its member institutions an elementary and secondary school accreditation program that is considered as tough or tougher than programs approved by state and regional accrediting organizations. ACSI also boasts a teacher and administrator certification program that equals and exceeds the requirements of state certification and requires a minimum of 16 hours of Bible courses and a class in Christian Philosophy of Education. Member schools sign a statement of faith affirming that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and that salvation is necessary through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. Also, every year members must sign a statement that they do not discriminate. Dallas schools such as First Baptist Academy, Trinity Christian Academy, Tyler Street Christian School and Dallas Christian Academy are representative accredited members of ACSI.

Standards for other Christian schools aren’t so stringent. ACE, whose international headquarters are in Lewisville, doesn’t actively seek accreditation, says Edgar D. Whitcomb, a former governor of Indiana who is now assistant to that organization’s president. “We take the position from the Bible that education is the responsibility of the father. If a father chooses to defer his responsibility to the church, then the state should not interfere.”

The requirements for becoming a teacher or principal in an ACE school are practically nil. An initial outlay of $5,000 or less gets any interested parent or pastor a week-long intensive course on the organization’s procedures, a set of ACE workbooks and tests, a set of tiny Christian and American flags students are to hoist when they have questions (the Christian flag for academic help; the American flag for yes-or-no, can I go to the bathroom-type questions); and even some of the red, white and blue uniforms with the American flag ties that are worn by ACE students and officials. Once the ACE preparatory course is completed and the flags are in place, all that’s lacking are some students to set the school in motion.

The academic credentials of the school’s officials are the least of ACE’s worries, says Whitcomb. Since all work done by ACE students is completed in “paces” or workbooks, and self-testing follows every level, there are no lectures or class discussions. In fact, there is almost no such thing as a teacher in the ACE classroom. Students work independently from kindergarten through grade 12 in study carrels they’re encouraged to decorate themselves. They are watched after by monitors who perform secretarial duties. Students are disciplined when necessary by the school’s supervisor. It is “strongly recommended,” Whitcomb says, that the supervisor “hold a degree of some sort.”

Whitcomb feels strongly about ACE. His advice to parents: “If you really love your kids, get them out of public schools. If I’d had a Bible on the table and pounded it night and noon, I couldn’t have influenced my children because of the peer pressures they felt at public schools.” -Katherine Dinsdale

Building self-esteem: Walden Preparatory School

EVERY ACTION HAS a consequence, and students bearing that in mind usually succeed at Walden, a preparatory school for children in grades nine through 12. Walden offers an alternative education for the student constrained by the traditional school. Its administrators believe that the primary task of adolescence is the move from dependence to independence, so Walden stresses the students’ taking responsibility rather than the school’s taking responsibility away from them.

Founded in 1970 by a group of parents seeking a better education for their children, Walden has abandoned the traditional classroom format in favor of a more relaxed and less structured environment. Walden conducts classes in a rambling, oddly designed house. The classrooms are more like family rooms. Classes are conducted at large tables where students sit in a circle with the teacher rather than the teacher peering down at them from the head of the classroom.

Walden seeks out independent, iconoclastic students who for whatever reason are not succeeding in traditional schools. Pamala Stone, director of Walden, says “Many of our students are very, very strong in certain areas, but are deficient in others. The low student-teacher ratio at Walden allows us to challenge a student’s strong areas while giving special attention to his remedial ones.” According to Stone, traditional high schools just don’t have the manpower to pay special attention to remedial needs.

Walden will accept students with some minor learning disabilities, but their primary function is to build self-esteem. Stone says that many of their students have failed in the traditional environment for so long that they see themselves as failures. “Our biggest job is to put these kids at ease,” she says.

Consequently, the Walden teacher is central to the success of the whole program. Says Stone, “We look for teachers who have a genuine rapport with young people. They have to really like this age group. I can have a teacher apply with a Ph.D. from some Ivy League school, but if he doesn’t like kids, I won’t hire him. The teachers must be prepared to handle potentially difficult kids. These kids are smart, and they’ll see right through a teacher.”

And smart they are. Pamela Francis teaches Graham Greene, Thomas Wolfe and J.D. Salinger to her second period English class, but on this particular day, she was teaching Timothy Leary. The consensus of the class seemed to be that Leary was far too “dogmatic” and that his anti-establishment ramblings of 1968 were not relevant in 1985. One student pointed out that Leary has recanted many of his previous positions. The point of the exercise was to get the kids to think rather than regurgitate facts. The students weren’t spending their class time memorizing soliloquies from Romeo and Juliet; they were engaging in a Socratic dialogue about pertinent topics.

Says Stone, “One of our strengths lies in our ability to individualize assignments.” Many times, the assignments are tailored to fit the special needs and abilities of the individual student. Not every student comes in at the same level, so they’re not all forced to work at the same level. Walden allows the teachers to address the student’s individual talents rather than hold him back in his areas of strength, or prematurely force him ahead in his weak ones.

Stone explains, “We had a student who was very intelligent and talented who was failing at his previous school. He felt he already had the skills that he was being taught and that school was a waste of time, and for the most part he was right. Nonetheless, he wasn’t doing his work and he was failing.” But the student did have a very keen interest in computers; at Walden, he was allowed to do extensive work with computers and to some extent design his own curriculum. He was allowed to excel with computers in exchange for acceptable performance in other classes. Such an approach might not work in every school, or with every student, but Walden was never intended to be a school for all teenagers. -Alan Peppard

One-on-one: The Alexander School

MARIA HEARN attended W.T. White and J. J. Pearce high schools where her poor performance in the classroom was in marked contrast to her social adroitness. Plagued by bad grades, Maria almost gave up on herself and her social life, coming close to dropping out of school altogether.

Today, Maria is six weeks away from beginning her freshman year at the University of Florida. She hopes to complete her undergraduate requirements and go on to earn her law degree, concentrating on corporate law. Her transformation from near drop-out to motivated student is the result of two years of honest self-evaluation and “cramming” at the Alexander School. “It saved my life,” Hearn quickly admits. “I came here in the middle of my junior year with five credits to my name. I wouldn’t have graduated until 1990 if it hadn’t been for this place.”

Each Alexander student is required to take five courses with five instructors. The classroom is simply a room big enough to hold two chairs and a desk that teacher and student can share. To an observer, the two participants in each room appear to be engaged in an important conference.

Most of Alexander’s students come because they are dissatisfied with their lives in public and private schools: indifferent students, bad grades, lack of challenges, peer pressure. As Maria puts it, “A lot of people can handle both studying and partying, and I couldn’t. I got them confused on my priority list.”

One measure of success is the school’s sizable increase to 23 teachers and 100 students in the decade since its inception. That’s big enough, says Debbie McFate, director of education: “We don’t want any more. We did find that when we received that hundred, we lost a little bit of our closeness and that’s what we’re all about.” Not surprisingly, there is a waiting list.

Nobody should doubt the stringency of the program. As Maria Hearn says, “You’re here to work. People see this school and they think, ’one-on-one, 45-minute classes, you can smoke, drink Cokes…Oh, what a blow-off.’ This is definitely not a blow-off. It’s been the toughest two years of my life.”

Computer science teacher John Nash, whose son Jeff attends the school, sees obvious advantages for the student. “You have an opportunity to focus in on the student’s problems. When you get in a classroom of 30 people, the teacher doesn’t have time. He may know what Johnny’s problems are, but if he takes time to focus in on those specific problems, then all the other students are left out.”

All agree that Alexander’s tuition, $7,750 a year, is prohibitive for the vast majority of students and is an obvious drawback to the school. “There are students,” Nash says, “who could benefit from this environment who can’t afford it.” No doubt the steep cost is related to the school’s decision to be completely privately funded.

The school has also been criticized from those who contend that Alexander does not offer enough “interaction” among students. That concern is well taken about a system promoting teacher-student isolation and quick transitions from class to class. Debbie McFate makes no effort to parry this criticism. “I think school is not the place to socialize. They’re here to learn. I feel if they need to socialize, they’ll do it, whether here or outside the school.” The administration does sponsor river outings and ski trips during the year, and students do have occasional parties. Maria Hearn is the school’s social chairperson.

The Alexander School’s one-to-one ratio carries burdens- teachers find the work occasionally taxing in its intensity, the structure of the school is potentially isolating to students, and it is expensive. But the students are paying a premium to be alone with the teacher, having their particular intellectual weaknesses attended to. This focus on particularity seems to pervade the building. As Maria Hearn says, “Everybody has a story here.” -Michael Sullivan


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