This article describes the evolution of Harper Alternative School, which serves disruptive, volatile, and seriously emotionally disturbed students who could not be managed within regular schools in Houston. Through a process of constant change and refinement to meet students' needs, the school has developed a model that is successful in serving even the most troubled students with minimal use of exclusionary consequences.
The Houston Independent School District (HISD) is the largest school district in Texas and the fourth largest urban school district in the United States. With a population in excess of 200,000 students in 245 schools, HISD faces the challenges common to all large urban school districts. Among these challenges is the question of what to do with students who, for whatever reasons, have not been successful in the traditional school setting. The district has a unique approach to that problem. This article describes how that approach is used at Harper Alternative School, a special education campus designed for seriously emotionally disturbed students who have been unmanageable in other programs.
Harper Alternative School
Harper Alternative School is HISD's placement of last resort for approximately 120 aggressive, seriously emotionally disturbed students, ages 13 to 22. These youth are at high risk for residential placement in out-of-district behavioral placements, hospitals, or the juvenile justice system. The mission of Harper is to provide opportunities for each student to achieve maximum intellectual, social, emotional, and physical growth. Upon leaving Harper, students should be equipped to deal effectively with other people and to succeed both in the work world and in educational pursuits. The motto of Harper is “Together We Can.”
One goal of Harper is to enable students to return to their home schools. When a student is placed at Harper, the referring school provides a written list of the behaviors the student must demonstrate in order to return to that school. These students were the most disruptive, destructive students at their home schools, so the home schools are reluctant to welcome these students back. However, once the students have maintained appropriate behaviors on the top level of Harper's management system, they have earned the right to go back to their home schools.
The issue of convincing the home school to readmit the student is resolved by reviewing the initial referral to Harper. The home school had specified the behaviors the student must exhibit in order to return. Thus, when documentation indicates that the student exhibits those behaviors, the student has satisfied the school's requirements for re-entry.
When Harper Alternative School opened in the fall of 1985, the staff was unprepared for what faced them. The roughest students from the most highly structured behavioral programs in the school district were enrolled at Harper, and the staff attempted to deal with them in a loosely structured manner. Students were expected to have problems, and the staff sought to serve with more empathy than consistency. As a result, the students were uncontrollable; and the staff was overwhelmed.
With the backing of the superintendent of schools,
Harper closed in order to regroup. The staff received intensive
training; and when the school reopened, students were provided a
nurturing environment with clearly defined standards of behavior and
consistently enforced consequences for misbehavior. The school then
began its ongoing journey of growth and success.
Harper uses a behavior modification system, known as the Level Management System, in working with students to change their behavior. The system initially consisted of five levels, with the lowest having essentially no privileges and the highest having extensive privileges. By demonstrating appropriate behavior, students earn points in order to move to a higher level. Conversely, severe misbehavior results in the student's being moved to a lower level.
When Harper opened for the second time in 1985, students were brought in at the lowest level of the system. Since each level takes a month or longer to achieve, students had a long wait before they could expect to enjoy any significant privileges. Since there was no level lower than the bottom level, students at the lowest level felt little hope of moving up soon. Students also perceived that there would be few consequences for misbehavior while on the lowest level. As a result, student behavior remained consistently volatile. In order to address these shortcomings, entering students were given more opportunity to demonstrate responsibility.
Beginning with the 1990-91 school year, students entered Harper on the middle level of the behavioral management system. At that level, students do not have to be escorted by an adult to classes, the restroom, and other places within the building. When students enter the program, they understand that they can earn their way up or down in the system.
Because the level system is used in other behavioral programs in HISD, students are familiar with it and understand the disadvantages of being moved to lower levels. Students who are placed at Harper typically were unsuccessful at other placements and thus were at the lowest level of their previous school's management system. Even though they are being placed in a more restrictive environment at Harper, they understand that the movement to the middle level is an increase in their freedom. The practice of admitting students at the middle level has improved student behavior significantly.
Though the five-level system showed some success, the staff found five levels to be a cumbersome, unmanageable system. Beginning with the 1992-93 school year, Harper modified the system to consist of three levels, with the students' being brought in on the second level. The three-level system is proving to be easier for the staff to track and for the students to understand.
Empowering students to succeed
An integral component of Harper's program is ongoing counseling provided by the school's four psychological associates (master-degree level). These caseworkers each carry a load of approximately 30 students. They provide direct service to the students through group and individual counseling. When a student is having difficulty, the caseworker is available to help that student deal with the issues troubling him or her. This immediate form of intervention has been effective in preventing an escalation of problems and has empowered students to deal more effectively with their environment.
In 1988, the services provided by Harper's psychological associates expanded to include a conflict management/mediation program. A local community agency provided mediation training to the students, and several students became peer mediators. In 1989, a local judge became involved and brought a wealth of experience into the mediation program. In 1990, a psychological associate who is also a certified mediator was hired to fill a vacancy in the counseling program. Harper then expanded the program to include mediation between parents and staff, parents and students, and students and students.
The parent connection
The psychological associates program at Harper led to a variety of programs for parents of Harper students. A student's dysfunction does not occur in a vacuum. As is frequently the case when students have emotional problems, many of their parents have unmet basic needs that interfere with their ability to function as effective parents.
One of the programs available to parents of Harper students is a weekly parent support group. The response to this program has been so positive that it has been difficult to find room in the meetings for all the interested parents. The parent support group deals with such issues as the stress of being a parent, dealing with children with challenging behaviors, and the importance of meeting one's own basic needs in order to better meet the needs of children. The parent support group was turned over to a parent volunteer and the program is now in its first year of self-sufficiency.
Another program available to Harper parents is Parents on Patrol. Parents of Harper students monitor hallways and maintain a presence as role models for their children. In return, these parents receive training from Harper staff to prepare for the General Educational Development (GED) certificate. At a meeting just prior to the beginning of the current school year, a Harper parent proudly went from one person to another showing her recently received GED certificate. She exclaimed, “I'm 42 years old, and I finally have a GED!”
More opportunities for Harper parents are being offered in the current school year. For example, staff now assist parents with job readiness skills. Parents receive instruction in writing resumes and applying and interviewing for a job.
Another integral component of Harper's psychological services program is the evening home visitation. In this program, teachers, psychological associates, and a social worker visit the homes of students who have been absent from school, are having difficulty in school, or have made excellent progress in the program. This provides a critical service to those parents who, because of work constraints, are unavailable during the school day. It also serves to communicate to students that school personnel care enough about them to take whatever steps are necessary to provide them with a successful school experience.
This program began by having staff members available in the evening at the school, but few parents had access to the transportation needed to get them to the building. The program then evolved into having the staff available at several different sites around the city. That still posed a transportation problem to parents. In 1990, the staff began going directly to homes to work with parents. The program then began experiencing greater success.
Accountability with belonging
The Harper School fosters a sense of belonging within a safe school environment where students can learn to make responsible choices. The school employs off-duty Houston Police Department officers and HISD police officers to assist in enforcing consequences. The officers work together to help the school maintain a peaceful, orderly environment. The Harper police officers play an integral role in teaching students that there are real consequences for their actions.
For example, if a student loses control and hits a staff member, the student is arrested on-site by the Houston Police Department officer and charged with assault. The student is handcuffed and transported in a police car to the juvenile detention center. If a parent is available, the parent goes to the detention center; and the student generally is remanded to the parent. To this point, the process is the same that the student would face if he or she assaulted any person away from school. However, once the student is back in the parent's custody, Harper asks that the parent immediately return the student to school. The student then resumes a normal school routine, if possible. This instills in the student an understanding that he or she is accepted and welcome but that there are specific consequences for specific actions.
Similarly, if a student is out of control but not violent, the student may be sent home for the remainder of the school day. In each case, Harper asks that the student return to school the following school day. In no case is a student expelled or suspended from Harper for more than the remainder of the current school day.
Beginning with the 1993-94 school year, Harper organized its students and teachers into four clusters, each of which is led by the psychological associate who has responsibility for those students. The teachers and psychological associate for the cluster meet several times each week to discuss issues involving the approximately 30 students in their cluster. This approach has dramatically decreased acting-out behaviors of students. The cluster deals with the whole student, including problems facing the student at home, in relationships in and out of school, and in all school-related issues.
When a student is having problems at school, the student attends the cluster meeting. The student, the teachers, and the psychological associate then process the issues. This approach gives students an increased sense of belongingness, ownership, and accountability.
Addressing the gun problem
In addition to the programs described thus far, Harper has a self-contained class for students who are not enrolled in special education and have been expelled for bringing an illegal weapon onto an HISD campus. The program is known as Code IV, because it is for students who have violated Level IV of HISD's Code of Student Conduct. According to that policy, any student who brings a gun or other illegal weapon onto any school campus is to be arrested and recommended for expulsion. As a part of the ensuing process, the student appears before a judge for arraignment. Depending on the student's criminal record, the judge may remand the student to the custody of a juvenile detention facility or may order that the student be placed on probation and return to school. A meeting then is held between the student, the parent, the juvenile probation officer, and a senior HISD administrator to plan the student's education program. The student is placed at Harper for six to twelve weeks of instruction in a separate, self-contained, intensely structured class. The student's home school provides the instructional materials for the student during his or her assignment at Harper. The Harper teacher works through the materials with the student so that the student will not fall behind the rest of the home class when he or she is returned to the home school.
According to an evaluation of the Code IV program during the 1991-92 school year (the most recent year for which data have been analyzed), principals of the home schools reported that the program had a positive impact on the students' academic work, attitude, and attendance when they returned. Remarkably, of the 53 students for whom data were available, there was 0% recidivism. In fact, in 1993 the Houston Independent School District Research and Evaluation Department reported that there had been no discipline problems from any of the students in the year following their completion of the Harper program. Despite the fact that 74% of the students had been identified as being at high risk of dropping out of school, none of the students dropped out of school in the year following their Harper experience.
Education for independence
Harper's instructional program incorporates a Vocational Education for the Handicapped (VEH) component. Students enrolled at Harper choose from among the following vocational courses: Food Service, Building Construction, Building Maintenance, Horticulture, Small Engine Repair, and Child Care.
After seeing many students miss an excessive number of school days due to lack of adequate care for their small children, Harper applied for and received a grant through the Parenting, Education, and Pregnancy (PEP) program of the Texas Education Agency. With funds from that grant, Harper established a child-care center, enabling students to bring their small children to school. While the children are being cared for, the parents attend classes. Additionally, the PEP program provides parenting classes for these students. As a result of this program, Harper has seen a decrease in excessive absences due to child-care problems.
The vocational cooperative program at Harper provides on the-job training and work experience to students classified as juniors or seniors. The program also is actively involved in a variety of competitive events. Students from Harper have won numerous state awards and have had the opportunity to compete successfully against students at the national level. This success has served to boost the confidence and self-esteem of those students who face numerous barriers to their success.
Harper Alternative is just one of the alternatives to expulsion available to students in the Houston Independent School District. Harper's staff members are committed to the empowerment and development of their students. That commitment leads to ongoing refinement of their program and constant introduction of new components designed to better meet students' needs.
This feature: Allen, S. and Edwards-Kyles, D. R. (1995). Alternatives to expulsion: Houston's school of last resort. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems, 3, 4. pp 22-25.