Westchester’s public high schools are among the best in the country. In fact, many young families move to Westchester largely, if not primarily, for the schools. But as public education becomes increasingly standardized, Westchester’s public schools continue to offer more—and more effective—alternative options for bright, creative students who learn better in non-traditional settings.
We’re not talking about vocational programs, charter or magnet schools, programs for children with special needs or “at risk” students—though, frankly, students who are bored or unmotivated or who otherwise get lost in the high school shuffle are at risk of a number of things, including not graduating and not pursuing higher education.
Walk into one of the county’s alternative public high school classes, and you might see two or three students sitting on a sofa, having a cup of coffee or a bagel, engaged in deep conversation with a teacher. Visit another, and you’ll find one student hard at work on a laptop, perhaps wearing earbuds, while a small group in an adjacent room discusses a recent assignment. These kids are working toward a Regents or, in many cases, an Advanced Regents diploma.
A friendly and casual atmosphere, flexible course schedule, supportive teachers, and individualized attention help to ensure students’ success at Pleasantville High School’s Pleasantville Academy. Visiting speakers, like Steve Del Savio (below), an apprentice of “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan, are a fun part of the program.
Alternative education is nothing new. In fact, the concept can be traced back to the great philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose 1762 tome Emile, or On Education posited that education should be tailored to the individual, not the other way around, and that building character and morality was more important than rote learning of reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. Rousseau was certainly ahead of his time, and his ideas were lauded by many. Still, from the mid-19th century to the first part of the 20th century, the much more staid “one best system” public education model prevailed in America—and variations of it have been continually challenged ever since.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, more than 500 “free schools” (based on countercultural ideas) were formed, and magnet schools began to crop up. Traditional education models prevailed, but educators continue to assert that one size fits all does not work when it comes to learning.
“Not everyone learns in the same way,” says Dan Iorio, program administrator for Pleasantville Academy, Pleasantville High School’s dynamic alternative program. “Therefore, they should not be taught in the same way.” Like Pleasantville Academy, a number of non-traditional programs within the Westchester public school system are addressing the needs of creative, intelligent students who often struggle with what can seem like a staid, cookie-cutter approach to learning. For these students, non-traditional programs offer a lifeline—and a world of possibilities. While the programs all differ somewhat in their philosophies and education models, their goal is the same: to ensure that their students not only live up to their potential, but excel both in school and in life.
For many students in alternative programs, small class size is important. This should come as no surprise: In “regular” school programs, small class size is often one of the things parents look for when researching school districts. Many students who enter alternative programs have struggled with large, impersonal classes in which they often feel as if they are being talked “at” by instructors. For these students, the more intimate, casual environments that alternative programs provide can make a world of difference—not just in grades, but in motivation and self-confidence, too.
A more personalized learning experience is key to the success of the Yorktown Alternative High School Program, says Director James F. Emanuele. For 15 to 20 minutes each morning, the staff greets each student, engaging them in conversation and assessing their moods and enthusiasm for the day ahead.
Related: The 2015 Westchester High School Rankings Chart
“It’s not just a quick hello and goodbye,” says Emanuele. “It’s a time to talk and for us to personalize the school experience for our kids.” Emanuele says this kind of interaction is particularly important for teenagers who are discovering themselves and how they fit into society. “Our students know we’re here for them,” he says. “It’s all about consistency.”
For students in Chappaqua, where the competitive nature of Horace Greeley High School can be a turnoff for some, the LIFE (Learning Interdependently From Experience) School, which encourages independent thinking, is a viable choice.
LIFE Director Jon Hirsch calls LIFE a “lab school,” a center for innovation. “Here, we try things that may or may not happen on the main campus, such as internships, project-based learning, et cetera. We pilot new ways of thinking about content, delivering instruction, and working with students,” Hirsch says.
In the LIFE School, small groups of students engage in project- and problem-based learning without much direct instruction. Engaging in collaborative work with each other and with teachers is also encouraged. “Memorizing timelines doesn’t seem to be the best use of their mental capacity,” says Hirsch. “We encourage them instead to think deeply and to connect their learning with the world around them.”
LIFE caters to students who are academically successful, as well as to those who are disenfranchised after years of traditional schooling. While LIFE offers classes that are intellectually stimulating, engaging, relevant to today’s issues, and challenging, one of its primary goals is to give students unique experiences and a greater sense of self. An advisory class, which allows students to bond with peers and teachers, and a community class, a half-credit course that teaches them about governance issues while honing their leadership skills, is all part of the LIFE experience.
Dissecting animal hearts may not be glamorous, but it’s definitely hands-on—one of many hands-on activities that help keep students engaged at the Yorktown Alternative High School Program.
In the Scarsdale Alternative School (SAS), one of the county’s oldest alternative high school models, student-led community meetings focus on the establishment of rules, expectations, and procedures. Together with weekly “core group” meetings, they offer a chance for students to share and resolve concerns and conflicts.
SAS supports its enrollment through a lottery system and looks for a diverse balance of kids to represent a broad range of academic abilities and experiences.
Students can serve on a fairness committee, which hears and decides cases of bad behavior, such as cheating, bullying, lateness, and other violations. The strategy is based on renowned psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s Just Community concept of schooling, which serves as the backbone of the program.
Dana Karin, a 2003 graduate, says students are encouraged to voice their opinions and learn to wrestle with disagreements. “To do that with adolescents at such a pivotal point in their lives is wonderful.”
In addition to teaching students to value justice, respect, and trust, alternative-education programs inWestchester are giving students the freedom to direct their own learning in ways that are mostly unheard of in the traditional high school setting.
SAS “really gives students agency and a voice in their own education,” says Karin, a doctoral student at NYU who says the program helped her develop a voice she was proud of. “Those traits were incubated in that environment, where I gained the confidence to speak my mind, to ask questions, to explore, and to satisfy my curiosity.”
For Leslie Hinderstein’s daughter Maddie, a senior in Chappaqua’s LIFE School, the danger of missing a valuable literature class because her schedule couldn’t fit it in was eliminated because she had the opportunity to work on an alternate independent-study project with her English teacher. “She never would have had this chance if she was on the main campus,” says Hinderstein.
Edgemont’s Phaedrus A-School is a dynamic program that stresses responsibility and independence.
In the Edgemont School District’s Phaedrus A-School, the motto is “learning for the sake of learning,” says its co-director and English teacher Cory Karpf, who manages the program along with social studies instructor and co-director Pam Raines. The half-day initiative, established in 1977, creates a dynamic and supportive setting for a diverse group of students who want to be challenged in a democratic school community. Students are chosen for the competitive program based on their application, which contains nine essay questions, as well as their performance in an interview.
“There’s a big focus on responsibility and independence,” explains Karpf, noting that juniors and seniors must complete a year-end project. Past examples of projects include the impact that 9-11 has had on the civil liberties of citizens; comparing Harry Potter to Nazi Germany; and the differences between Cirque du Soleil and other circus-arts groups. Such projects include a written proposal, 50 to 60 research hours, journal writing, a research paper, weekly/bi-weekly meetings with faculty, and a two-and-a-half-hour presentation.
The year-and-a-half-long Cambridge Pre U: Global Perspectives and Research Program at Ardsley High School (AHS) is open to students of all abilities and is intended to enhance their critical thinking, research, communication, and collaborative skills as they explore issues of global significance.
There are currently 18 students in the program at AHS. Bronxville High School has adopted a similar initiative. While students are required to take two exams to satisfy the needs of Cambridge International Examinations, a not-for-profit department of Cambridge University, social studies teacher Jason Simone says it’s not all about tests and grades.
“This program asks that students undertake prolonged independent and self-directed learning as well being able to think laterally, critically, and creatively,” explains Simone, who runs the program along with Tiffany Moleski, an English teacher at AHS. “It encompasses so many of the 21st-century skills our students need in college and in life.”
In the first semester, students write a 2,000-word essay on a global issue of their choice and submit a multimedia project to Cambridge to show how well they can articulate an argument. In their final semester, students are required to produce a 4,500- to 5,000-word research report. Throughout their course of study, they are also engaged in various team projects.
“The challenge to expand your knowledge and write about what you want is enjoyable when you can reflect on your work,” says Cambridge student Marielle Bremer.
“We want to make students accountable for their education by allowing them to make decisions about what and how they learn.”
— Pleasantville Academy Program Administrator Dan Iorio
The pressure to succeed can stymie some students in traditional programs, and, while most alternative programs are as academically rigorous as traditional high school programs, they tend to release the pressure valve, focusing instead on students’ individual needs and achievements.
“We want to make things interesting for students and to keep them engaged and motivated,” says Pleasantville Academy Program Administrator Dan Iorio. “The students in our program represent a variety of academic abilities including Advanced Placement, Regents, and modified levels. We offer customized options, such as flexible scheduling, multiple means to earn credit, and personalized learning.” Accountability is also a big part of the program. “We want to make students accountable for their education by allowing them to make decisions about what and how they learn,” says Iorio.
Though the district has been offering a smaller scale alternative-education model for years, in 2014, the program moved to its own bright, comfortable modular unit on the high school campus. There are currently 10 students in the program, which is open to 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-graders, and the close-knit group is intentionally small, so that students can get individualized attention. “They have the kind of support they need here, which makes them want to come to school,” says guidance counselor Cheryl Thomas.
HASP director Greg Smith prides himself on maintaining a family-like atmosphere in his program.
While still participating in Pleasantville High School’s mainstream curriculum, Academy students have certain privileges that are unique to the program, including access to a guest-speaker program, the opportunity to participate in special hands-on projects, a personal mentor, a special internship program that collaborates with local businesses, participation in community meetings that allow students to talk about their lives and challenges they may be experiencing, and a more flexible course schedule.
“The Academy has had a profound effect on my life,” says Evan Kearney, a senior in the program who notes that, not only has he improved academically, but the program has helped him improve his organizational skills and communication skills as well.
Neil Rosenshein, whose daughter Ailie was struggling in school, believes the Academy’s small-class environment and the dedication of its teachers has allowed his daughter to shine and to show her “that she can do whatever she wants to do,” he says.
At HASP (Hastings Alternative School Program), Director Greg Smith prides himself on maintaining a family-like atmosphere for 10th- 11th-, and 12th graders, with ninth-grade students allowed to come into the program halfway through their freshman year. The program, which graduates from seven to 10 students a year, has a definite social component to it, with students heavily involved in projects and hands-on learning.
Judy Hundley says her son Jack, who graduated from HASP three years ago and is now a business major at Marist College, had a positive high school experience once he entered the HASP program. “Jack thought students were fair and had respect for one another, too.”
HASP senior Cailin Kenehan describes the program as “our little HASP family.” Students in HASP take English and social studies, with the remainder of their high-school requirements fulfilled in the regular high school.
In middle school, Cailin’s grades started to lag and she had difficulty socializing in the larger school environment. It was further compounded when she entered high school.
“It all hits you at once and then you’re failing and you’re in a huge class and you don’t feel comfortable,” recalls Cailin. “It’s just harder to fix it.” The warmth of the HASP program, however, has kept her there for four years and she is grateful every day for the support and guidance she’s received from teachers and staff.
At the Rye School of Leader–ship (RSL), which is housed at Rye High School, ownership is a huge factor in student success. Director Jennifer Fall says many students new to the program have a history of fighting with parents about school, homework, and grades.
“The first commitment we ask parents to make is to back off—that is, to stop asking about assignments, emptying backpacks, and managing their child’s schoolwork,” says Fall. “Firstly, because it’s not working, but mostly because by the time they are in high school, students need to truly be responsible for their own work.”
Fall believes that when parents (and teachers) help too much, students have no chance to own their own success. “What this means is sometimes, especially in the beginning, students will fail,” says Fall. “We also see value in this because when they can own their failures and learn from them, they can start on a road to success.”
Students are expected to develop a sense of integrity, personal responsibility, and to take on leadership roles in everything they do at RSL, says Fall. At the end of each day, students do all the custodial work—dusting, vacuuming, emptying the garbage, and other tasks—that is necessary to get classrooms back in order.
A monthly day of service allows the whole school to work together on a community-service project. In the past, the students have worked with Habitat for Humanity, sorted donations for a food bank, and served at a local soup kitchen.
Rye parent Kathie DiEdwards can’t even describe the impact RSL had on her son Max without becoming emotional. “Max was not a lover of school by any stretch. He didn’t want any part of it,” she recalls. Her son, who is now a squad leader in the Marines, went into the program voluntarily. “He thought he didn’t have anything he wanted to do, and heard that (RSL) was the place he needed to be.”
At first, DiEdwards and her husband were unsure of the program. “It was hard for my husband and I to send him there at first because we really didn’t know anything about it. We thought it was where the ‘bad kids’ went.”
Students in the Rye School of Leadership engage in character-building activities that help them develop a sense of integrity and personal responsibility.
The caring attitude of teachers and their realization that not everyone learns in the same way are among the reasons her son did so well, she says. When he needed to fulfill an elective requirement, DiEdwards says they created one for him.
Having won the good conduct medal twice as well as possessing the drive and ambition to move up the ranks of the military are directly associated with his experience in the leadership program, she says. “Without his experience at RSL, I’m not sure that any of this would have happened.”
How do students in alternative high school programs fare after graduation? According Jeanne Beattie, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Education, there is no hard data. This may be due to the fact that many students in alternative programs take some of their classes in the main school, and, even if their entire course load is in the alternative program, they are still held to the same standards and must meet the same requirements in order to graduate. Students in alternative programs are graduating from their school, not the program; they receive a Regents or Advanced Regents diploma, just like all other graduates.
However, in addition to their regular academic studies, the skills students learn in most alternative programs are highly sought by colleges and employers. According to HASP Director Greg Smith, a recent project for his students was to interview past graduates. In the interviews, there was one common thread: the significant role that HASP played in the lives of the alumni in high school and beyond. “That,” says Smith, “is a testament to our program’s success.”