Christopher Dunbar Jr. on African American Youth in Alternative Schools

A Look at Christopher Dunbar, Jr.’s Alternative Schooling for African American Youth

What role does alternative schooling in our public school system offer to our troubled and academically challenged youth? If you ask this question on any given day within the public school system you might hear such answers as it offers more individualized, one-on-one attention to students in dire need of it, it offers an environment where outside agencies and helpers can better focus on the needs of the students enrolled, or it offers a chance for students to succeed who may not otherwise receive one. Those are just canned responses that sound good in a public meeting or look good on paper and justify the very existence of the schools. The truth though, as thoroughly researched, lived, and presented by Christopher Dunbar, Jr., in his book Alternative Schooling of African American Youth is an entirely different matter.

Dunbar takes us into the lives of actual students involved in the alternative school setting, and sometimes heartbreakingly describes to us the challenges they face in this environment and in their lives outside of school. There are several key themes and arguments that I think Dunbar is trying to make with this book: the reality of alternative schools vs. the perception of them, the importance that social roles and other outside factors play in the world of academics, the dire need that these children need for an academic system that truly reaches and teaches them, and most importantly that these students are not throwaways, they are children, and as such deserve every opportunity to try and succeed in life; an opportunity they are not truly being given in the alternative school system.

Reality vs. Perception

When people think of alternative school systems, they may, as I have prior to this class, think of a school that is designed for the benefit of students who are falling behind in their academic school work due to behavioral problems or a learning disability. This is not entirely untrue. What they may not know, however, is that these schools are what Dunbar describes as a place for students that nobody else wants to deal with anymore. They are a place where students who refuse to conform to the school culture or standards set by society are sent as rejects. They are in an essence, throwaways; students that society no longer wants to deal with. The perception is that these school were created to benefit the students having severe challenges in within the school system, but Dunbar shows us that they are more of a way of finding a way to protect the rest of the student body from the behavior of these students; a way to isolate this academically/behaviorally challenged student body from the rest of the students in the public school system for the good of all.

Another perception that exists in the community is that these students are being taught in a specialized manner by teachers/staff/administrators, etc., who are trained in said areas of need. They may believe that a different curricular is being used to help these students to become higher achievers and to better be able to fit into society. From what I have read in Dunbar’s writing, I would argue this to not be a reality. The teachers, staff, administrators described did not seem to have any area of expertise training, outside of the normal teaching requirements, and Dunbar at the end of the book argues a need for just this type of training to be brought on board. The curriculum that exists is only different in that it is a diluted version of the pedagogical system that these students were already under (and unable to learn from) in the regular school system. There are mild variations of it, but for the most part the idea of the teaching is the same, just severely watered down (and more tolerant of challenging behavior) which does little to no good at all for the students’ learning progression.

Social Roles and Other Outside Factors that affect Academics

For students whose social standing is cause for survival of the fittest, such as is the case with alternative schooled children, Dunbar argues that isolating these students to the company of just each other is not the way to help them achieve academic and social success. He notes that there is no one among their academic peers to offer a proper role model to them, and that instead they are put in an environment where one has to be tough to survive, where academic success and adherence to authority are many times viewed as weakness, and where the precedent for how they are to be treated among their peers is set at how quick and bold they are to mistreat others, break rules, buck authority, etc. Dunbar calls this the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½slap harder’ concept and notes that while it may give them a misguided social sense of fitting into the small group they are in, it does not give them any chance of hope for succeeding in the real world.

Another challenge that faces these students that cannot be controlled by the school is their home environment. Many of these students are not well cared for, not well nourished, live or play in dangerous environments, and have little or no parental involvement in their lives. While Dunbar notes that there is not a lot the schools can do about these circumstances, he does note that there are several things schools could be doing to counteract the circumstances students are facing outside of school. His suggestion for maintaining a positive networking with associations that might offer after school programs to these students (which would be integral to giving them a positive way to spend their time after school) I thought was a great one.

Dunbar also notes that criminal activity is not uncommon in the lives of these children, as they or someone in their family have most likely been involved in the court system or even worse have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. The example being given to these students, according to Dunbar, is that it is okay to behave in such a manner, as to them it is the norm. This presents a very difficult problem for the schools and sometimes stricter intervention is thought to be the answer to the problem. While structure is most definitely needed, having it in the form of detention centers, juvenile delinquent homes, and prisons does not seem to be the effective way of dealing with the problems, as the students just come out of these places even more hardened and with a bigger wall to penetrate than ever before. In Dunbar’s own thoughts it is a strong dose of hope that these children need not higher and wider walls to scale (65).

Reaching and Teaching the Students

Dunbar argues that it is not just academics that must be focused on for student success, but also we must get to the root of what is causing the behavioral problem for the students as well. He also argues that in order for successful changes to come about, a revamping of the entire system is going to have to be in order. He believes there is going to be a great need for cooperation across the board, and in all areas of the educational process for the right system to be implemented to help teach these students to learn. He argues that the system the way it is has already proven a failure and provides the academic failing records of these students as proof and the ever widening gap that exists between the academic achievements of black and white students as a further reiteration. He places the argument that we have to get to know our students and what is going on in their lives to better be able to assist them in their academic growth. And he argues that in order for success to prevail these students cannot be placed in alternative schools as a means of punishment for bad behavior in the school system. He proposes a system where it must be written, and valid, the reason that an alternative school system would truly benefit a student before their admission into it is permitted. Finally Dunbar notes the obvious, but often times overlooked simplicity that alternative teachers spend up to eight hours a day with each of these students and as such may be the most constant and reliable source of support, in fact sometimes the only source of support that these students have. As such he notes that we, as teachers, have to truly care about our students and that when we do, they can feel it and that alone sometimes can make a world of difference when nothing else can. I instinctively think they are words to hold close to our hearts.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Dunbar’s arguments as they relate to multiculturalism

The strengths that Dunbar’s arguments have in relation to multiculturalism as we are learning it in this class are that he is attempting to draw attention to the importance of multiculturalism and how it will positively affect the students of alternative schooling to be a part of a multicultural diverse school, not one divided because of race, class, or economic/academic standing, and as we are learning in this class that is very important for the success and well-being of everyone, not just a select few in society. As was noted in the Dunbar text and the idea also presented in various discussions of this class, to benefit the children is to benefit the society as a whole. Dunbar has a great strength in that he promotes this concept wholly, and not only researches and writes about it, but he has lived it, has taught it and is offering some very viable suggestions for putting into motion ways to implement and advance his theories on how to improve the alternative education environment and in essence, society as a whole.

Dunbar also has a great strength in showing us how what we are learning in this class in regards to multiculturalism is true. Equality and freedom for all does not truly exist as it might, and as we have seen through such texts as Takaki’s and Kozol’s, may never exist, but in all three texts the same thought prevails through even the darkest of situations and that is that we have to have hope, we have to believe in and fight for change, and slowly but surely, change can and will come about.

There were only two questions I had at the end of this book in terms of what Dunbar was writing in comparison to what we are learning in this class regarding multiculturalism. The first was that Dunbar focused on the importance of African American teachers in the culture of these students. What about when these students are integrated (knock on wood) back into the traditional school system, will they have learned enough skills to be able to deal with teachers of other races in a respectful manner? Will they want to learn from them? The second question that comes to mind as I finish the book, in terms of relating the text to what we are learning about multicultural environments is: how will the schools be able to integrate these students back into their home schools if they are so far behind academically? Won’t they have to ostracize the students into Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½slow’ learning courses, or keep them in separate classrooms so as to not slow down those students on task, or so as not to create a hostile environment for these students who have worked so hard in the alternative schools (because what if they are not accepted due the stigma of being in an alternative school, or because they are not able to keep up with other students in the class in terms of academics)? I am just worried that if something is not put into place for smooth transition back into the school system that these students might revert back to aggressive ways of acting out, because as we have learned time and again in this class, there is not a lot of fair in our society in terms of differences, be they academic, racial, ethnic, or economic. I am wondering how equipped these student will be to deal with these injustices upon their initial return into the school system.

In conclusion I would like to note that Dunbar’s text, much like Jonathon Kozol’s, Savage Inequalitiesleaves the reader with a profound sense that something in our school system is seriously amiss and students are losing out on lifetime opportunities because of it. It leaves us with a sense of outrage that something must be done. Dunbar, however, unlike Kozol, does offer some solutions, and some very viable ones at that. It is my great hope that the right someone(s) will read this book, someone(s) in the position to make a real difference for these children, and that they will be inspired to do just that. The information of what is really going on in these schools is being shared, the misguided perceptions are being rightfully trampled, the ideas for how to alleviate and work around outside factors for these students is being pondered, and finding ways to really get through to these students the importance of education is coming into play. As such, and if these ideas are molded into a real plan of action, the future of alternative schools could look bright in the future. With the dissemination of the realities that truly exist within these school systems you would think the changes would come about quickly. Textbooks such as Kozol’s show us that they may not. All we can do is hope for the best, do all we can to play whatever positive role we can in the progression of the plan, and offer props to authors like Kozol and Dunbar who really are making a difference in helping to get inequalities within the school system noticed and acted upon. Kudos to them both, the world is truly a much better place because of them, and if the fruits of their labor result in positive changes within the aforementioned schools, that statement will be multiplied exponentially. Here’s to hoping beyond hope we will see these necessary changes in our lifetime/generation, for the changes are long overdue, and the sooner they are in coming, they better it will be for all.

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