Byers: A School of Joyful Engagement
Arnie Langberg on the Failure of a Successful Educational Experiment
Editor’s preface: Arnold Langberg is a visionary educator and a member of the Earthville Network’s Board of Directors. In the autumn of 1986, having just graduated from his position as principal of the Jefferson County Open High School (in Evergreen, CO), Arnie joined Denver Public School District as their Administrator of Alternative Education. One of his first missions was to “fix” four struggling alternative educational programs that had been established as satellites within a group of conventional schools in Denver. Three of these alternative satellite programs were referred to collectively as the Metropolitan Youth Education Centers (“Metro” for short), which Arnie discussed in his previous article here. The fourth was Byers, which Arnie discusses in this story.
Byers is a beautiful old building in Denver, and when I became the Administrator of Alternative Education in the Denver Public Schools, my job included serving as the principal of a sixth to twelfth grade “alternative” school housed in that building. When I walked into the building to survey my domain, I was surprised to find six adults and no students. Other schools in the district were already in session, so why the terrific student/teacher ratio?
I was told that, each year, students who had been at Byers were returned to their “home” school, and could only attend when they were referred, usually by the assistant principal for discipline in the home school. I asked a silly question. “Is the school any good?” If so, why can’t they stay? If not, why keep it open? Do the kids have to steal a hubcap to get in?
At least five years before my visit, when I had begun considering transferring to Denver Public Schools, from Jefferson County, a nearby suburb, I had asked to meet with a Denver school board member to see if he thought it would be a good fit for them and for me. Omar Blair was the only African American on the board of a school district under court order to desegregate its schools, and he told me that his fellow board members were about to create a program that would relieve the conventional schools of their major problem students. Omar was convinced that this would mean primarily students of color, and he was going to amend the policy to make it as difficult as possible for schools to use this as a tool of resegregation.
The headline in the Rocky Mountain News two days later was DENVER STARTS SCHOOL FOR “MEAN” KIDS. An administrator with a reputation for being tough was assigned to what he termed “boot camp,” and this became Byers Alternative Learning Center. And five years later, I became its principal!
Your Mission, Should You Choose Not to Accept It…
I was told, informally, that if I wanted to close the school, no one would object. Of course, that was not the opinion of those six adults who were assigned there. One of them, an assistant principal who had recently been transferred to Byers, invited me to lunch at the nearby air force base, to show me what he did during the summer. I observed him interviewing young people who were offered work on the base as an alternative to incarceration, and he did it very well.
As we drove back to school I told him that, if this was his vision for Byers, one in which students would be involved in community service, I would be in full support. I created a proposal to present to the school board that included the service component with three other radical departures from previous arrangements. We wanted to have up to 10% of the students attend by choice rather than by referral for infractions. As additional staff would be hired, they should be chosen by the existing staff. Most importantly, if these were the most difficult students in the system, we asked for a twelve-to-one student/teacher ratio. The proposal was accepted.
Within a month our enrollment soared, mostly through referrals, but including seven who chose to join us and who became the school leaders and role models. Tony had been enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, had come down with pneumonia, missed two weeks of school, and was told that he would never catch up. So he came to us, helped to create the school, and was one of our first graduates. He received a full scholarship to Colorado College and played varsity basketball as a freshman.
Two stories best describe the wonderful turnaround that happened at Byers. We shared our building with special educators from around the district, and occasionally similar educators from other districts would come there for meetings and conferences. One woman from another district wrote me about how she had previously been apprehensive about entering the building because the kids had made her uncomfortable. She described how different the climate had become, with a student opening the door for her, introducing himself and welcoming her to “our” school.
Even more powerful was an event that happened early in the second semester. I was told that an assistant principal from one of the district schools had brought one of his “problem kids” to be enrolled, and upon seeing the atmosphere of joyful engagement, figured that he was in the wrong school!
The notion of “joy,” however, leads me to remember an incident that I should have realized was an indication of how limited the life of this experiment was to be. I was meeting with a member of the central school administration, a woman whom I knew was particularly sensitive to the needs of kids of color, and when I described our school climate, her response was “Those kids don’t deserve to enjoy school.”
She was horrified as she heard these words come out of her mouth, and we both understood how pervasive the conventional school culture had become. This was brought home to me again at a public meeting where my colleagues in the other high schools expressed anger that they couldn’t get their kids into my schools because we weren’t losing them as fast as they were sending them. They actually asked whether the alternative schools were there to serve them or were they there to serve us!
The system had become more important than the students — those whom the system was supposedly designed to serve.
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