The Role of Relationships in Alternative Education

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Written by: Joe Shelburne, Bri Schoch, Lindsey Wright

Almost every State in the Country (43 as of 2014*) offers students in middle and high school a defined “Alternative Education” program, with each program as varied as Indiana’s weather.  There tends to be a broad spectrum of strategies districts choose to serve targeted populations for all sorts of reasons.  Differentiating, individualizing and personalizing learning experiences have long been an integral element of the Alternative scene.   Districts seem to do what they do in order to meet the unique needs of their local communities, which, across the board, can look amazingly different.

However, in spite of this variation, there is one area of focus that seems to connect many of the alternative programs that do exist.  Relationships.  It is probably no surprise that establishing quality relationships among teachers and students is key to the success of any Alternative program.  Probably more so for at-risk populations of students who have unique needs that find themselves in alternative settings.  Most alternative programs emphasize and nurture these positive relationships with students.   In Perry Township, The JWR Success Academy uses a specific framework for discussing and cultivating these relationships.  The Developmental Relationship Framework® comes from the Search Institute, an organization that has for many years, been focused on understanding what young people need in order to thrive.  The Search Institute provides a wealth of information, surveys and research-based strategies all focused on understanding youth.  The Success Academy utilizes the Developmental Relationship framework as the foundation for work with students involved in the program.  The Success Academy targets students that lack success and who are considered at risk of not finishing high school.  Students in the 8th Grade are identified and invited to participate in a 45-day, intense intervention which is heavily focused on building positive relationships with these students.  At JWR, relationships center around 5 elements of a developmental relationship.  Developmental meaning the type of relationship a young person needs which supports their individual growth and maturity as they traverse the years of adolescence.  Elements of the framework include: 1) Express Care, 2) Challenge Growth, 3) Provide Support, 4) Share Power and 5) Expand Possibilities.  These tenets are further expressed by 20 specific actions included in the framework.  

Although we complete a multitude of assessments during the first week of the program, we aim to learn as much as possible in our short time with the student. We learn what motivates students and  try to incentivize the process.  We also want to learn what strengths we can nurture as well as areas to develop. Each student completes the 40 Developmental Asset Survey (also from the SEARCH Institute) at the beginning of the 45 day session and again upon completion of the program. We are hopeful that time spent in the program will reflect growth in these assets, specifically with respect to relationships and feelings about school, but also we are hopeful these positive interactions will permeate into their home life as well.   

Students invited into the JWR Success Academy experience a hands-on project involving building and decorating bird houses.  With the two Perry Township high school mascots being the Cardinals and the Falcons, it was only fitting to create a workshop experience connected to these impressive birds.  The workshop experience gives kids an opportunity to take immediate pride in something they have built.  Many times, students share that they have never had the chance to drive a nail, turn a screw or sand a piece of wood, so with a little guidance, these students are quite impressed with their finished product.  While these are the beginning experiences that could someday connect a student to a trade, we stay focused on nurturing a quality relationship with students while they are in the shop.  Kids become different when you put tools in their hands and an opportunity to express themselves through something they create with their hands. They feel important and eager to learn about all the steps you must consider when working with paint, wood and glue..

Birdhouses are decorated according to the school colors of District’s elementary schools and once a set is complete, students then deliver them directly to each of the district’s 15 elementary schools.  This puts JWR students in a new position, having to present their creations to the school’s administration and teachers.  JWR students must explain the program’s purpose and mission and interact with adults in a positive way.  Everyone is typically very impressed with the students’ work and the experience is almost always filled with pride and moving enough to sometimes cause a watery eye.  Strategically, through the process of working in the shop and delivering these birdhouse projects to schools, students have an awesome opportunity to build quality relationships with all sorts of school staff.  Which is exactly the point, it really isn’t about the birdhouses.

As we started and although we are consistently working to foster positive youth development through engaging students and highlighting any and all successes while a part of the program, we want to ensure that they know this relationship does not end. Our goal is to match each student with a mentor, and although this virtual world has been challenging to say the least, we have learned the conveniences as well. We have been able to grow our mentoring process to continue the relationships the students are creating. We will continue to be supported by these students through mentoring throughout their academic careers. They are paired with mentors upon completion that agree to check in with the student weekly – this can be through email, a Google Meet, phone, or even face to face. This is the person that will continue to help guide and advocate for the student throughout their time in Perry Township. This way the student knows that they are truly a part of something bigger. 


Perry Township Alternative Program:   

Bri Schoch, Social Worker, Southport Middle School – Grades 7-8, Suburban

Lindsey Wright, Social Worker, Perry Meridian Middle School – Grades 7-8, Suburban

Joe Shelburn, Director of Alternative Education Grades K-8, Perry Township Schools

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