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I recall the end of 2014 one of the most exciting times of my life. I finally finished my undergraduate degree in Psychology along with my now-husband and we were both ready to take that first step into the "real world" of careers and corporate work.
My first job out of college was nothing short of a dream come true: a non-profit school-based counseling company that provided psycho-social rehabilitation to troubled youth and young adults. I couldn't think of anything more perfect as one who would've gladly spent the rest of their life counseling mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally disturbed children and the pay wasn't bad coming fresh out of undergrad and still a bit wet behind the ears.
And more great news! I was going to be the forerunner of the county I was assigned. It would be new uncharted territory for me to make malleable with my mind and possibly even take under my jurisdiction one day. On-boarding and training was wonderful, I loved my co-workers even though they worked in a neighboring county and I was almost over prepared to go in that fateful Monday morning after winter break.
Welcome to Alternative Education.
In layman's terms, Alternative Education (or Alternative Ed as we called it) is just what it sounds like; a public institution that took in students with behavioral and disciplinary challenges. These were students that had been expelled from public and their home school, sent in from a juvenile program, or had been released from a correctional facility and needed to assimilate back into public school.
Needless to say that all the training in the world couldn't have prepared me for the things I dealt with and witnessed in those places. The students I was supposed to be facilitating group therapy sessions with could not even be in the same room with each other. The faculty was littered with behavior interventionists that had to escort students every and anywhere on campus. My students at the beginning of the day were required to walk through metals detectors and all things on their person would go into containers that they would not see until the end of the day. An abnormal day was when not a single student ended up in Internal School Suspension.
Truancy, insubordination, disrespect or threatening an authority figure, violence on a classmate, teenage pregnancy, many of them had been arrested for a plethora of crimes.
I cried my first week.
But not because my students were rude or disrespectful, not because the teachers ostracized me or mocked me, and not even because doing my job proved to be more difficult than I had once imagined.
It was for them, for all of them.
Alternative Ed has the potential to become a quick revolving door of incarceration and letting go. As a matter of fact, we used to have a saying at one of the schools I worked at.
"If a child has been with us for over two years, they probably won't ever leave."
And that was a disheartening fact I came to realize was painfully true for most of the students. Many of them came from troubled or broken backgrounds. Many of them looked for security from those that should've made them feel safe but after being let down so many times, they knew they couldn't trust anyone but themselves. Some of my students brought a sensitive thought to my mind when I asked them to draw a house and noticed that the majority of these houses lacked garages, windows and anything decorative.
My students lived in a war zone, and not of their own making.
You see, these things happen in cycles.
A child from low socioeconomic status where their parents are working low wage jobs because maybe they don't have a higher education is more likely to grow up just like them. This child will have less access to better-funded schools usually because of location or financial reasons. They are more likely to come home to empty houses because their parents are working. They are more likely to witness or experience violence, drug usage, and have higher risks of mental illnesses and chronic heart diseases. They are less likely to learn productive coping mechanisms for the constant waves of stress they will be exposed to. And with those factors, this child is more likely to end up in Alternative Ed or Juvenile Corrections, possibly not graduating and working low wage jobs just like their parents.
Now of course, this outlook isn't for all students that grow up like this. There are pushes (and shoves) in the direction of better education for children living in the conditions stated above and by giving that kind of opportunity we are working toward producing better educated, competent entrepreneurs that many times assist the schools and neighborhoods they grew up in so as not to repeat that vicious cycle.
And that is exactly what I strove to do. I held my small group sessions. I took my students on field trips and held seminars with them. I taught them about integrity, about being responsible for themselves and the things that they do and how it affects them and those around them. I taught the young men how to tie a tie and the girls how to carry themselves like respected people because they deserved that from the men and women in their lives.
After a school term, if a child has been regularly attending school, staying on top of their grades, and keeping away from suspension, they may hold an exit counseling session with a guardian and a representative from the public school they wish to go or return to. If the meeting goes well, they are invited back to their school where they can continue to learn in a standard public school environment. I don't believe I need to elaborate what happens if things don't go well.
I watched a number of my students get accepted back to their home schools, and some would have to attend the Alternative Ed school another term. A few received their diplomas and some would be dismissed after they reached a certain age without meeting the requirements for graduation.
Upon leaving, I was thanked, by the staff, by the behavior interventionists and most importantly, by my students and their proud parents who I handed off their diploma jackets to.
And I cried for them again.
Happy tears this time.