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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Safe Haven Found at Alliance School

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Tina Owen is the lead teacher of the Alliance School, a charter school that will start its sixth year in autumn. The school is unique in that it was created explicitly with the mission of providing a safe haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and other youth who were being bullied in other school systems. After an initial recommendation for nonrenewal of the school’s contract in May, a two-year extension was provided.

Could you describe Alliance School and your role with it?


Alliance is a place that is really built on community, where it is more like family than just school. Everyone is watching out and accepting of each other.

We don’t have a principal or an assistant principal. That comes from a belief in democratic governing—that everyone should have equal power and work together. Even the students are involved in voting with changes in the school and doing the things to make the school run well.

I started it with a group of people: teachers and students. The reason was there was a lot of bullying in schools and there was a feeling that there is nothing we can do or it is too big of a problem. I said, “No, we really got to do something about this because kids are dropping out and the suicide rates are horrendous for LGBT youth and kids who are bullied.” I could see this in my students. I could see the depression; I could see them stopping coming to school.

Why was there a recommendation for non renewal of the school’s contract?


When we started, a lot of our students had pretty much dropped out of school and the test scores weren’t as high as they needed to be. As a charter school we have to beat the district in test scores—that is part of our contract. It took some time to develop that academic culture, and to make the students comfortable.

Each year the test results were going up and up. But when it came to the contract renewal year—our fourth year—we were within five points of the district in every area. We had beaten them in a couple, but we hadn’t beaten them in enough. We went to the board and showed them all of our results. Based on that, and the fact our scores were going up, they gave us a two-year renewal.

What is Alliance going to be focusing on during this two-year extension?


Our teachers are picking goals that are connected to student achievements and how the students are going to reach those goals. We are using the benchmark assessments four times a year to see where we need to focus our intervention. It has been extremely successful and the students have gotten to the point where they can look at their own weaknesses and know what they have to do.

What is your favorite part of your job?


I love working with the students and seeing them develop confidence and succeed. A lot of the students haven’t always been proud of who they are because they have been getting so many negative messages. When you see them excel, smile, having fun, and learning, it is really rewarding as a teacher to see that happening because that is why you are there.