The Lawrence school district closed its alternative high school in 2004, but advocates say the need for it still remains, and they’re working with the school district to try to bring it back.
”We need to do more to help floundering students,” said Sue Malloy, who taught for 29 years at the alternative high school. “Everybody knows there are still students floundering.”
Malloy is one of the core members of the Alternative School Coalition, a loosely structured grassroots group that includes parents of struggling students, former students of the alternative high school, teachers and others in the community who see the need for another option to reach at-risk students.
The group doesn’t have any formal leadership or organization yet, but Malloy and several other members have been meeting once a month with school district officials to hash out the details of what a new alternative high school might look like.
Once the group has done its research into the issue, Lawrence Deputy Superintendent Anna Stubblefield plans to use those findings to make recommendations to the school board for the 2019-2020 school year. She said that presentation would happen in the spring.
From the beginning, the Alternative School Coalition has been an informal, grassroots effort. Malloy said the group was formed in large part by former graduates of the alternative high school who still live in Lawrence. Struggling students and their parents would often come to these graduates for advice, she said, and the conversation about reintroducing the alternative school grew from there.
Nicole Negley, a special education teacher at Lawrence Sunflower Elementary School, said she got involved with the coalition because she saw the need to provide an option for at-risk students needing additional support. Her brother and sister attended the old alternative school, she said.
Malloy said the old alternative high school started in 1974 as a small program at Lawrence High School. It was eventually relocated to the brick building in Holcom Park that the district had used as a warehouse.
At its height, the alternative school had an enrollment of more than 200 students, Malloy said.
“We were not supposed to have more than 12 students in a class,” she said. “There were years where almost every class had 12 to 16 students.”
Malloy said budget concerns prompted the district to discontinue the alternative school in 2004. A lot of the expenses stemmed from the fact that the district is legally obligated to provide the alternative school students equal access to the extracurricular activities available at LHS and FSHS, she said. The district did allow alternative school students to take part in band, choir and other such activities at the two traditional high schools, but that created transportation issues.
Stubblefield said a new alternative school would still have implications for the district’s budget, but she said the district might be able to fund it by reallocating resources instead of adding new funding.
Many of the details of what a new alternative school would look like are still nebulous. Stubblefield emphasized that the conversation about adding an alternative high school was still in the early stages and that no details were in place regarding basics such as budget, staffing or where the school would be located.
The district is allowing the Alternative School Coalition to take the lead on many of those aspects, Malloy said.
One thing that is relatively clear right now, Malloy said, is what types of students an alternative school would help: teens who — for a number of reasons — don’t fit into the district’s two traditional high schools and need the added social and emotional support not available at the Lawrence Virtual School. They could be students with behavioral issues, students who missed months of school for medical reasons, or even students who don’t feel comfortable in the social environment of the traditional high schools.
“It could be a freshman overwhelmed with the large numbers at Free State and experiencing bullying,” Malloy said. “He may get up one morning and think, “I don’t need this in my life’ and drop out. These are students who need the extra attention regular teachers don’t have the time to give them.”
As for the location of the school, Malloy said her group was starting the search for a site that would provide a smaller, more intimate environment. She said coalition members would visit the Lawrence College and Career Center and the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center to see how those facilities might fit into the program — and whether they could possibly house it.
Negley and Malloy also pointed out that several nearby districts — in Topeka, Leavenworth and the Kansas City area — have alternative schools. Those provide multiple models for the district to review as it develops its own school, Malloy said.
Malloy said the district’s response to the grassroots effort has been gratifying.
“I would not have stuck with the coalition as long as I have if the district had not been so responsive,” she said. “It’s something that is going to happen. People are just now starting to listen.”