Ignacio first came to our alternative education program after a violent confrontation with school resource officers. His choice of friends left him at risk for gang activity, drug use, violence and dropping out. In some ways, he was hanging onto school by a thread.
But as he spent time with us in the classroom we got to know him. He talked about anime and skateboarding, tattoos and “Narcos” on Netflix. He also started making a concerted effort to complete his schoolwork. And his parole officer often talked about how great he was doing and how there was a real possibility of him getting off probation in the near future. Ignacio is an outlier; the traditional school setting wasn’t working for him, but a change of environment more suited to his needs and interests gave him the opportunity to flourish.
Alternative education is typically the last stop on a journey for kids who have never had the opportunity to be a child, growing up in a world where the only constant is chaos. For them, the norm is a daily struggle to find what most would consider necessities: food, shelter, clothing. When there is no food and nowhere to sleep, too often there is no love. No one to care about your grades, no hugs, no birthday gifts, no glimmer of hope—just the consistency of survival by whatever means necessary. This is a population long neglected by the public school system and often relegated to dark corners in separate buildings, a familiar dismissal in their lives.
These are also the students we serve every day. At Marietta City Schools, located north of Atlanta, we’re making every effort to end these types of destructive practices and give those like Ignacio, not another dead end but a true beginning.
Marietta Alternative Placement and Services, or MAPs for short, is a program exclusively for high school and middle school students placed on long term expulsion. Capped at 50 students, MAPs provides curriculum at the individual student level and is tailored specifically to overcome learning gaps and make accommodations for social-emotional learning needs. It doesn’t look like your typical classroom either. Learning is always happening but the classroom is often loud and conducted in a state of controlled chaos.
Eighty percent of MAPs students have had or had some type of criminal charges and more than half are involved in a street gang. All but one of our students are black or hispanic, and over 30 percent of them are students with some type of cognitive or behavioral disability. These students often have very little regard for school and a history of negative experiences with teachers, police and administrators who don’t see them past their disciplinary files or the clothes they wear. There is no question the MAPs program is the last chance for these students in a public school setting and the stakes are high; failure means dropping out and dropping out means becoming a statistic and the end of an educational journey.
IGNACIO’S SECOND CHANCE nearly came crashing down with one senseless act when he and a friend were arrested. His friend ended up charged with a felony and Ignacio as an accessory. Ignacio was facing incarceration but he just as easily could have been hurt or even killed. Ignacio was almost lost and the finality of one seemingly insignificant decision was overwhelming.
One of us, Farhat, is the director of MAPS, who has always believed that the only way to reach youth with no hope is to offer them a glimpse of a future they had never imagined. We wanted to create a sort of trust circle where students could share their life experiences with each other and hear from others who had been in similar positions. The idea was to give students like Ignacio hope and build a support network they could rely on as they completed school.
Brittney is an administrator in the district, the executive director of innovative practices, who spends a lot of time at MAPs thinking about how to create equitable and inclusive experiences for students. Together we began envisioning a program that would expand these trust circles to people outside our school, including some who our students mainly saw as antagonists or even enemies. The idea was to see if we could start meaningful dialogue that the students saw as real.
OFFICER CHUCK MᴄPHILAMY came to MAPs randomly; he took it upon himself to come to the building and asked what he could do as a police officer to help out with the students. It was a nice gesture, but the reality is talk is cheap and students need someone who is willing to show up for them on a regular basis. We weren’t really sure how he’d respond to a classroom as loud as MAPs, which had surprised him at first. But then he surprised us. He responded by coming in every week, sometimes bringing kids food, sometimes talking to students who needed mentoring or providing advice to help manage the daily struggle of maintaining a population who is at extreme risk every day. It was through this ongoing relationship that we first hit on the idea for what we began to think of as family meetings.
The only thing that ever seemed to resonate with the students is attention, and the idea came to arrange something like a Sunday dinner at school for the express purpose of informing the students their lives mattered. We wanted to bring together a lot of people students often found themselves at odds with, including the police, district administrators and educators to flip the script so to speak, and bluntly state in an open forum: We care about you, we want you to stay out of jail, stay alive and lead happy and successful lives.
The Monday after Ignacio’s arrest the seeds were planted. We asked the kids if they would be willing to stick around late on a Friday to talk with the police and some other folks. There were a few raised eyebrows, but we had already managed to establish a lot of trust with students and it wasn’t too big of a bridge to convince students to extend this trust to a bigger circle.
THE FIRST MEETING was slipshod. Officer Chuck showed up and brought a colleague from another department, rounded out by Farhat, Brittney and one of the lead counselors who volunteers his time and is affiliated with a local university. Every single student ended up staying that day and sat silently while a group of adults they had never really interacted with told them how important they were, how they weren’t alone and how people were there for them to help whenever their lives or decision making got desperate. In other words, please don’t fight or run; call one of us and know you are not alone.
Months later, after the start of the new school year and the second week back on campus after the COVID-19 shutdown, there was a second family meeting. This time rounding out the roster were members of the Joint Gang Task Force, the police officers who were involved in the arrests of most of the students in the program. The plan was for these officers to see the kids as more than just gang members and for the kids to see the officers as more than just antagonists.
All week we prepped the kids by drilling that idea into their heads. We formed a circle and cut some of the tension with an honest opening statement from Farhat. “Everyone here has had a gun pointed at them at one point in their life, and that type of violence is a screwed up shared experience to have and one you can’t walk away from.” Officer Chuck and Brittney went next, each opening up about stories from their lives that were unflinching and raw. One of the gang task force officers went after them, a giant man in a tactical police uniform. He went to the same place, talking about his own struggles, and it brought the house down.
Since that second meeting, we’ve been hosting a family circle every Friday before a holiday. The idea for the meetings came from desperation but it was rooted in hope; the kids needed love, support and a plan. We don’t expect the meetings will fix everything in kids’ lives; the only expectation is to provide a glimmer of hope that they will carry with them when they leave MAPs.
As for Ignacio, he is doing OK. He recently got off probation and is living in an apartment with his sister. If he doesn’t show up to school, he is on the phone with someone from the MAPs staff making a plan and figuring out his next steps. Recently, he told us: “Here [at MAPs] you stay bothering us about this [stuff]. I do hate it, but it’s funny because I didn’t get this type of treatment before. No one would check up on me.”
In the past few months we’ve also begun new programs revolving around restorative justice instead of harsh punishment and weekly small group mediation for known gang members. Our goal is to transform the label of “alternative” education. It is not simply a means to an end but a true beginning for students, schools and the greater community. To measure the impact is to look at one Igancio at a time and offer the opportunity for students to become more than they imagined.