It’s not my finest party trick, but if you chat with me for too long it eventually comes to that number. Or about ⅓, if you want to enter into fractions. Decimals? You know the drill…0.3.
Functionally, our society believes that young people who are defined as “at risk”—according to your favorite MN State Statute 124D.68—get ⅓ of the per pupil funding of what a young person who attends a traditional public high school in Minneapolis Public Schools. Yes, young people who are homeless, chronically truant, not on track to graduate, victims of abuse, or other extreme challenges all qualify for reduced funds to educate them. The most in need get less.
If you are like those who I corner at a party, you may stutter in disbelief. This is not possible! There must be caveats. Sure. And I am more than happy to talk school funding until your eyes glaze over. But here’s the skinny—contract alternative schools do not get a piece of the tax funded levy that Minneapolis taxpayers graciously voted on. Many of the extra dollars we add on to the base funding to help young people at risk don’t actually trickle down to the alternative schools. And before I completely lose you, once young people turn 18 they age out of the Title 1 funds that traditionally follow young people in poverty. Any way you slice it, we pay significantly less for a young person to be educated in an alternative school.
But this is not a tale of alternative schools vs. traditional schools. That narrative only amplifies the struggle and leaves young people behind. Rather, this is about what young people, particularly those with society sized boulders in their way, deserve. What would shift if we welcomed alternative schools into the mainstream? What if we didn’t build a culture of deficit and shame into their fabric, and instead saw alternative schools as what they are: our educational safety net; our laboratory of innovation.
In Minneapolis, there are seven different contract alternative high schools who are run in collaboration with local nonprofits: MERC Alternative High School; Takoda Prep ; PYC Arts & Tech High School; Loring Nicollet Alternative School; Menlo Park Academy; VOA High School; Nawayee Center School. The young people that attend those schools are Minneapolis Public School students—they are held to the same credit standards of MPS and earn diplomas from MPS.
It’s dangerous if we all agree on one way of educating young people. If all schools are too alike, it is too easy for young people to settle in the belief that they “hate” school.” We need diversity in approaches so young people can find out that they hate particular versions of schools and nestle into a school approach that truly works for them.
The frame of “alternative” opens up new pedagogical possibilities. From a one-room school house to experiential learning in the Boundary Waters, from true arts integration to anti-oppressive education, you get richness and intentional social supports that help young people thrive now and into the future. Each school has a mental health therapist on site, social supports to truly meet the needs of the whole person, and a staff that meet regularly to continually reflect on trauma informed approaches and get to work remaking their practices.
Who am I? Besides that person that rarely gets invited to parties anymore, I spent 8 incredible years teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools; I’m the brainchild of Minneapolis College’s Destination: Diploma to Degree; and I’m a former Minneapolis College Education Professor. These days, I get to be the LEAP (Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential) Director. I work with over 20 different partners and alternative education sites from around Hennepin County to make sure our educational safety net is launching young people into the sustaining careers that they choose. I have become an ardent advocate—poised to pounce on tables and grab lapels to raise the profile of alternative schools. People in our city should know about the great work they are doing right now, and what more they could do if they had all of our support.
Hannah, one of our LEAP students, approached me at the Jobs For America’s Film Festival and Networking Event. She was electric, animated. We had just watched films conceived of, directed by and starring the talented young people of six different alternative schools and two re-engagement centers. Although each film demonstrated the flavor of the school, the themes of family, care, relationships, and rekindling a love of learning shone through.
“We need the whole world to see these films,” she told me. “If everyone knew these alternatives existed, so many young people would not have to drop out of school.”
She pulled me aside and told me her story. How she fell behind at her traditional high school, started skipping, and eventually just stopped going completely. She had been depressed, overburdened with challenges, hopeless. Hennepin County Truancy Court never really found her and she just avoided school for a year—until someone turned her on to Takoda Prep. She started there in the fall, and by the winter, everything clicked. She had found her school home.
“If only the whole city could see these videos, more kids they would know where to go to school and not lose a year like I did. They could see that they could be a part of something so much bigger.”
Standing there with me, her face lit up with hope and optimism.
What if heeded Hannah’s call? Watch the videos. Connect with your community and make sure that the young people who are slipping away from traditional schools land in our safety net. Be an advocate for young people to hear their intentions and navigate them to their school home.
Let’s not stop there—we can be one Minneapolis Public Schools. Start small—share the Minneapolis Public Schools tax levy with the Minneapolis Public Schools students in contract alternative schools. Be loud. We need to invest in our young adults now so they can pay it forward throughout our society for years to come.
From the district to the state, we need robust, funding formula that invests in those with the most needs and keeps contract alternative schools in the mix.
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