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education and stigma

Alternative programs for at-risk students: wolves in sheep’s clothing?

Richard Sagor

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court concluded that segregated education was always inferior education. The author examines the current trend of placing at-risk students in separate educational programs and institutions in light of this historical perspective and offers successful alternatives for working with them that do not involve segregation.

The threatening aspect of this ‘sheep’s clothing’ metaphor is understood by nearly everyone. Looking like a benign, sweet, and probably harmless entity, a program — just like a voracious wolf — lures a trusting and unsuspecting prey into its clutches only to ultimately devour or seriously maim it.

“But, wait!” many readers are exclaiming. “Could the author be referring to those wonderful, sincere, and caring folks who run our alternative programs?” Absolutely not. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The hundreds of educators who tirelessly invest their energy helping the at-risk students who attend our alternative schools are not the villains. In fact, the character and commitment of alternative school teachers should qualify most of them for sainthood. The fault lies not with these well-meaning individuals; rather, it lies with the system in which they are caught and the educational policies which perpetuate those systems.

I recall well a story told about alternative education by Henry Levin, Professor of Education at Stanford University and founder of the “Accelerated Schools” project. Levin had just completed a presentation at a public school district and was beginning to prepare to leave for the airport. The superintendent of schools stopped him, clearly disappointed, saying he had hoped that Levin would have time to visit the district’s exemplary alternative program. After spending a few minutes listening to the superintendent praise the school’s curriculum, its staff, and the innovative teaching at this facility, Levin told the superintendent that he could and would alter his schedule. In fact, he asserted, he was extremely interested in seeing the school which the “superintendent’s children attend.” The superintendent looked perplexed. He told Levin that somehow he must have misunderstood. The alternative school was not the place where his children were enrolled — rather it was where the at-risk kids went to school. It then became Levin’s turn to look perplexed. He turned to the superintendent and observed that if the alternative school’s programs were really that good, the superintendent would surely want them for his own kids.

Levin’s story paints a human face on a phenomenon that Slater first labeled “the toilet assumption” (1980). The “toilet assumption” asserts that when society is faced with an annoying and difficult social problem, often the expedient policy of choice is to flush the problem “out of sight,” and consequently, “out of mind.”

Failure to thrive and primary prevention
Please understand, I am not saying that mainstream school administrators are a callous and uncaring bunch. Rather, I am saying that educators have for 30 years been faced with a dilemma: an ever-growing number of disenchanted, disaffected, and disenfranchised students. Facing this unacceptable number of youth failing to thrive in their schools, they have to choose a course of action. One strategy is to view the failure to thrive as evidence of a systemic problem and to go about fixing the system. Another (and easier) approach is to define the failure to thrive as a clinical disorder residing in the student and to then send the defective student away for treatment. The question remains: why do educators so frequently choose the latter approach?

Other professionals do not always have this instinctive reaction. In many fields, primary prevention is the strategy of choice. For example, most medical professionals now advocate an epidemiological perspective. That is, when an affliction seems to be increasing in a population, they feel the most prudent course of action is to identify a cause and then take preventative measures. Primary prevention is seen as preferable to treating an ever-increasing caseload. While the logic behind this strategy may be clear to physicians, it apparently has had a lesser impact on K-12 educators. Again, I do not think that intentional malice is at fault here. Rather, I believe that we must recognize that it is politically easier to “stay the course” and continue to offer “traditional,” mainstream education while shipping away the misfits than to remake our secondary schools into more hospitable, inclusive, and preventative organizations.

What are the consequences of such a policy?
Perhaps it is wrong to place too much concern on any policy’s motivation. In reality, what does it really matter if political expediency makes some educators reluctant to alter educational tradition in the face of increased failure? So what if this rationale causes district after district to create alternative settings for their population of disaffected youth? If these programs are, in fact, as wonderful as their proponents suggest, then what difference does it ultimately make?

In 1954, after reviewing volumes of expert testimony, the United States Supreme Court concluded that segregated education was always inferior education. Their dictum, “separate is inherently unequal,” was not just intuitive. It was supported by volumes of research data. No one was surprised to find the parents of disadvantaged minority students wanting the same opportunities for their children that they saw readily available for the children of the advantaged. These minority parents sought equitable treatment for the same reasons that parents of the handicapped continue to demand “the most integrated possible environment” for their youngsters.

If separate is inherently unequal based on race or handicapping condition, it follows that it would also be unequal when and if it were based upon a young person’s at-risk status. So why is there this difference in policy and treatment of the at risk’? I suspect it is primarily because our at-risk youth are twice vulnerable. They are first disadvantaged by their educational status and then by the political powerlessness of their families. In short, at-risk students come from a community that neither sees itself as a community nor finds itself in possession of a voice that politicians feel they need to listen to.

One of the most insidious aspects of segregation is that it can insulate the affected youth from exposure to other possibilities. I conducted a detailed case study of the alternative school in a medium-sized city I will call “Bridgeport,” located in the Pacific Northwest (Sagor, 1974). At this school, as in most alternative schools, interviews and surveys showed that the students thought very well of their school and its programs, and believed they were receiving a superior education to that provided in the mainstream school. They felt their teachers were better, their curriculum more innovative, and the instruction more appropriate.

This was an ironic finding, because the facts did not bear out their rosy assessment. In spite of the students’ belief that they were progressing faster, on the average, their rate of credit attainment (a crucial feature of secondary education) was lagging significantly behind that achieved by mainstream students (on a normal four-year graduation track). Worse yet, the academic growth (as measured on standardized tests) made by these “remedial students” was less than one year’s growth in one year’s time (the minimum needed to catch up to their more advantaged peers).

This lack of even normal rates of progress for students in remedial or special programs has been well documented in longitudinal studies of ESEA Title I (Slavin & Madden, 1989; USOE, 1989). The chronic lack of normative growth of students receiving special services is so great that some commentators have come to call these students “lifers” (Anderson & Pellicer, 1990), as they can never realistically graduate from these programs and join the mainstream.

The anecdotal reports of teachers, students, and parents, as well as the data from Title I and other compensatory programs, makes it clear that the pattern I observed almost 20 years ago is still alive today. It is curious that with all of the apparent concern about accountability, the districts and administrators who run alternative programs for the at-risk rarely evaluate the productivity of these alternative programs in terms of student performance criteria. Generally, the evaluations (if any) focus on how the clients-alternative school students and their families-feel about the program. When attending administrative meetings, I frequently hear school leaders asserting how good their programs are as evidenced by the size of the “waiting list” or how well the students get along with their teachers. While it is nice to hear of student approval for their schooling, it makes me wonder: When was the last time a mainstream public school administrator expressed satisfaction with school performance simply because the students enjoyed it?

While alternative programs do provide a safe haven from many of the stresses that weigh on alienated youth, they provide this sanctuary at a heavy cost. In my study, although these students were near unanimous in their laudatory comments, they overwhelmingly asserted that they “wouldn’t suggest enrolling at the alternative school to an otherwise successful sibling.” Why this inconsistency? The answer became clear when I inquired whether they had ever been “put down” for attendance at the alternative school. The unanimous response was, “Yes!”

“Spoiled image” programs
In schools, as elsewhere in our society, one is known by the company one keeps. If admission to a program is based upon possession of a handicap, the program becomes seen as the “handicap” program. If admission is based upon aptitude, it is called the “gifted” program. Likewise, when a program is based upon serving those “who don’t fit in,” it is seen as a special program for “those kids,” clearly not children of the local superintendent. Sociologists tell us that social programs do indeed confer a “social identity” on their participants. When this identity is a negative one, the programs are seen as carrying and spreading a “spoiled image” (Polk & Schafer, 1972).

Does this mean all alternatives are bad?
We have ample evidence (increasing drop-out rates, rising failure rates, increased alternative school enrollments) that demonstrates that the pedagogy of many mainstream schools is ineffective for many students. It does not take a trained educator to see that offering a diverse menu of viable teaching and learning alternatives in each school system would go a long way toward ensuring that every youth receives a free and appropriate education. The key issue is finding a way to keep these alternatives from conveying a “spoiled image.” To accomplish this, we will need to make educational alternatives “mainstream.” As long as the cost of admission to an “alternative program” is declaring yourself to be “unfit,” then attending an alternative program will put a scarlet letter on all who enroll.

Can we develop equitable alternative programs?
To answer this question, we ought to begin by asking ourselves what all students need and desire from their education, students both destined for success and most alienated. When summarizing the literature on student motivation, I have argued that the principal needs of youth can be expressed by the acronym CBUPO (Competence, Belonging, Usefulness, Potency, and Optimism) (Sagor, 1993; Sagor, 1996). Intuitively, we know that students will feel positive about their future when they:

The question, then, before educators wishing to develop a inclusive youth policy is, “How can we create opportunities at our school where every student can and will experience CBUPO (competence, belonging, usefulness, potency, and optimism) on a daily basis?” It is unlikely that any one approach, no matter how divinely inspired, could do this for everyone. In fact, when schools seriously begin to consider who needs alternatives, they often find that many of their seemingly most able and advantaged students would prosper even more in other than traditional settings. However, it is too much to expect advantaged students to venture into alternative settings when doing so is taken as a statement that they are resigning from the mainstream.

Then how can we avoid the “spoiled image?”
For the school that is sincere about meeting the needs of all students while stigmatizing none, a two-part process is called for. First, every program should strive to convey a positive image. This can be accomplished by making extensive efforts to have high-prestige staff and students participating in large numbers. Then, when at-risk students are encouraged to participate, their percentage o: the whole will be comparatively small, thus keeping the program from being seen as an “at-risk” program. I suggest a 75% guideline — that no program contain more than 25% of students who are considered to be “at-risk.”


The “diversion” of Jay

To illustrate how in-school diversion might work I will share an example from my experience as principal at a large suburban high school.

One day, Mr. Taylor brought Jay down to my office. Mr. Taylor knew that I was linked to the diversion program, and Jay’s behavior in class, as well as the comments he wrote in his daily journal, was leading Mr. Taylor to believe that if something wasn’t done soon, Jay would inevitably find his way into trouble.

Jay was new to our school. In fact, he had attended three different schools during the past two years. He came to our community when his father was paroled from prison with the requirement that he relocate. Jay had shoulder-length hair and a preference for those tight-fitting sleeveless T-shirts that showed off his well-developed upper body as well as his tattoos. Mr. Taylor introduced Jay and told me that Jay was unclear about the procedures for going out for sports. After that brief orientation, Mr. Taylor left the office, giving me a discreet wink. That signal, and our prior arrangement, alerted me to the fact that Jay was a candidate for diversion. I involved Jay in a discussion about athletics, and he shared that he had been a wrestler and had achieved some degree of success at the junior high he last attended. But, he told me, he had heard that it was too late to try out for wrestling here since the deadline had been the previous week.

I told Jay that he might be in luck since the wrestling coach was a friend of mine. I told him that I was willing to see if I could assert some pull on his behalf. Would he like me to give it a try? He told me he would. Without hesitation, I took Jay to the locker room where we approached Coach Nago. Knowing that the coach had reserved some spots on the team for just this purpose, I proceeded with high confidence.

I appealed to the coach saying, “I know last week was the deadline for turning out, but my friend Jay didn’t understand our procedures. He assumed that because his hair was too long, he wouldn’t be allowed on the team.” I added, “Jay is a good kid who really wants to wrestle.” I ended with this plea, “Could you make an exception this one time for my friend? I sure would appreciate it.”

Coach Nago thought for a minute and asked Jay, “So you really want to wrestle? You look like you’ve been lifting some weights, have you?” Jay replied that he had been, and the coach said, “All right, this one time I’ll make an exception!” He put his arm around Jay and led him off to check out the necessary equipment. Jay was now hopefully on the way to a positive identity.

With a system like this, Jay couldn’t lose. Rather than being left to wallow in a negative identity as a “shiftless kid,” Jay was able to bathe in a socially sanctioned positive identity, that of an athlete and, more important, “a wrestler” - a position that carried real status in our school. Even if he decided after a few days to drop the sport, he would have left knowing that he belonged at this school and that three important adults cared about him.

Second, to provide maximum access to a wide variety of CBUPO-rich opportunities for those students who are most at need, a school must guarantee that in each desirable class, activity, or program, there will always be “room at the inn,” Elsewhere, this has been discussed as “in-school diversion” (Sagor, 1993). In-school diversion is a strategy that provides continuous at-risk prevention for students without ever installing anything called an “at-risk” program. By using the positive identity of the existing programs, schools can avoid giving the entire initiative a stigmatizing name. It works as follows:

First, an inventory is taken of every motivating, positive, image-building program or activity operating in a school. It is surprising how long a list most schools can produce! Examples might include athletics, clubs, drama, music, safety patrol, teacher assistants, office helpers, yearbook committees, etc. Then each program leader (teacher, advisor, coach, etc.) sets aside 15% of the potential spaces in the program for referrals.
Whenever a student comes to any adult’s attention (appearing to be someone in significant need of CBUPO-building experiences), the adult in authority has a host of possibilities for “diverting” the student to a positive and prestigious program. Best yet, the adult making the referral can be confident that the student will actually be invited to join the program.* However, the best feature of such an approach is that by using diversion, a school is creating a program that can bring help to virtually 100% of its at-risk youngsters; yet it does so without designating any program as being offered specifically for “those” kids.

We need to acknowledge that there is nothing inherently problematic about alternatives. Alternatives are, in fact, a necessary and exciting way to recognize that all youth are individuals with different learning styles, preferences, and needs.

Furthermore, the best educational environments are those that make alternatives available to everyone, regardless of race, class, gender, or at-risk status. Such schools are places that celebrate diversity, rather than homogeneity.

What is harmful, under almost every circumstance, is segregation. Segregation is particularly insidious when it is based on one’s status as “being in need.” The harm is not just that these programs are incapable of meeting those needs, but that in many cases they further weaken these disadvantaged individuals by stigmatizing them as unfit people.

In many of our communities, we need to honestly examine the rationale for pursuing policies which separate the at-risk from the rest of the student population. If the proponents of such policies believe their approach is in the best interests of these children, meaning that they truly believe this strategy serves the needs of these youngsters, then we should encourage them to seek and collect data to support their contention that “separate can be truly equal.” I suspect they cannot produce such data, but I am willing to be surprised and proven wrong by valid evidence.

However, when the motives are less admirable-if segregation is being pursued to put the at-risk out of sight and out of mind-then such prejudice should be out in the open so that all of us, as a society, can debate our obligations to those students who are falling though the cracks. In short, we must stop letting our most vulnerable young people run the risk of being sent into the woods alone, only to be devoured by a well-meaning, but misguided, wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing.


Anderson, L.W., & Pellicer, R.L.O. (1990). Synthesis of research on compensatory and remedial education. Educational Leadership, 48, 10-16.

Polk, K., & Schafer, W.E. (1972). Schools and delinquency. Englewood, Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Sagor, R. (1974). The alternative school for dropouts, reform or retreat: A case stud.), of a public alternative school. Doctoral dissertation. University of Oregon, Eugene.

Sagor, R. (1993). At-risk students: Reaching and teaching them. Swampscott, MA: Watersun Publishing Company, Inc.

Sagor, R. (1996). Building resiliency in students. Educational Leadership, 54.

Slater, P. (1976). The pursuit of loneliness. Boston: Beacon Press.

Slavin, R.E., Karweit, N.L., & Madden, N.A. (1989). Effective programs for students at risk. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

United States Office of Education. (1989). Longitudinal study of Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title I. USOE, Washington, DC.

This feature: Sagor, R. (1992). Alternative programs for at-risk youth: wolves in sheep clothing. Reaching Today's Youth. Vol. 1 (2) pp.18-22