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Enter the Alternative School: Critical Answers to Questions in Urban Education

reviewed by Elizabeth Brown - May 29, 2014

coverTitle: Enter the Alternative School: Critical Answers to Questions in Urban Education
Author(s): Alia R. Tyner-Mullings
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 978-1612052991, Pages: 208, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Founding and maintaining an alternative school in a public school system, laden with reform initiatives, requires a resilient philosophy and the endless support of teachers, students, and parents. Alia Tyner-Mullings’s book Enter the Alterative School: Critical Answers to Questions in Urban Education provides an analysis of how external factors, such as the small school movement, accountability initiatives, and charter schools, coupled with internal school factors, like the mass exodus of founding faculty and different philosophical perspectives, all contributed to challenging the pedagogy, curriculum, and school culture of Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) in New York City. Although the title lacks the school name Central Park East Secondary School, which may influence its readership, the book is an historical analysis of the school. Unique to this research, Tyner-Mullings’ perspective is shaped by her personal experiences as a former CPESS student. The “insider status” helped Tyner-Mullings in depicting Central Park East Secondary School’s evolution from a public school alternative defining student success holistically and measured through an intense portfolio system to a more traditional school, similar to its district counterparts, where student success was measured through standardized tests.

Mullings’s book highlights the school’s history, its influential pedagogical and curricular influence on its alumni, and the compromises it took to ensure financial and pedagogical survival in a constantly changing educational environment laden with competing small schools, rigid state mandates, and a push for standardization through accountability measures. Tyner-Mullings’s book is timely in the sense that it provides a convincing argument for schools that prioritize habits of the mind over the regurgitation of facts; in-depth student-centered portfolio presentations in lieu of standardized measures of success; and interpersonal relationship instead of competition. In contrast to many schools, CPESS provided New York City youth with an opportunity to experience a true alternative to traditional schools. Typically, such an opportunity is only accessible through private school tuition. To that end Tyner-Mullings discusses the possibilities that the alternative public schools provide students in enriching not only their content knowledge, but also their soft skills, like confidence, perseverance, and communication. However, Mullings also discusses the limitations to such a model and how in the case of CPESS, the school needed intentionally to omit certain content to ensure a meaningful amount of time and depth was devoted to the school’s curricular focus on non-western topics and project-based learning activities.

Through in-depth interviews and questionnaires of key stakeholders, Tyner-Mullings measured the effectiveness of the school’s mission statement by extrapolating how the school influenced its former students in making critical life decisions, like where to attend college, and what occupation to choose. Thus the book evaluates the success of CPESS by measuring how its mission infused into the adult lives of its alumni. Throughout the book the voices of students and teachers are woven into the author’s narrative. Typically, alternative school research is challenged by two obstacles: (a) an inability to measure school effectiveness through traditional metrics, beyond standardized test scores, and (b) the challenge of preparing students for non-alternative educational environments, like college. However, the book attempts to answer both of these critical questions.

In Tyner-Mullings’s distinctive research, she identifies that Central Park East Secondary School’s former students reported carrying “creativity into their later education and careers, making creative decisions about their schooling, and occupations based on distinct elements of their human capital and individual personalities” (p. 63). Similarly, the book measures alumni’s ability to identify the school habits of mind whereby a majority of the alumni could describe them, but very few could name them. On the one hand, the alumni interviews were critical in identifying (a) the best types of colleges for urban students of alternative high schools and (b) deficiencies in the school’s curricular choices, such as a lack of emphasis of foundational math skills and European history. And on the other hand, the interviews emphasized the importance for schooling to enhance not just a student’s content knowledge, but more importantly, his or her dispositions and habits of the mind. Throughout the book, the reader is persuaded by the Central Park East Secondary School’s founding philosophy that strove to prepare students as critical thinkers with the essential habits of the mind whereby they were able to build strong personal and professional relationships. Similarly, the book delves into the importance of preparing urban students culturally for their college experiences.

A traditional evaluation of a school’s success could be measured by its philosophical loyalty.  However, in the case of CPESS, ambitious members of the faculty left to spread the school’s mission and philosophical curricula and pedagogy to other schools and the school lost its essential founders resulting in a shift in its philosophy, culture, curricula, and pedagogy. This issue responds to a second critical question in urban education: how can small alternative schools sustain their philosophical loyalty? Tyner-Mullings’s analysis of what she coins “the supernova effect” responds to this question whereby she views this mass exodus in an optimistic way as she illustrates how teachers and administrators left the school to found new schools or teach at other institutions. Like the supernova star exploding its powerful energy and spreading its matter around the universe, the founding teachers shared their educational energy with other institutions. Tyner-Mullings continues to explain how a combination of factors, both in and out of school, contributed to the supernova effect. Ironically, in an effort to replicate CPESS, the loss of its founding members contributed to changes in pedagogical and curricular direction and left the school vulnerable to multiple reforms, like the end to the regents waiver and a curriculum more aligned to preparing for the regents.

Contextualized in the history of New York City’s segregated and large school system, the book frames the argument that alterative schools should provide educational experiences and communities for young New York youth from all racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic backgrounds. Unlike many schools preparing for standardized measures of success, like the Regents exam, CPESS once embraced an “alternative curricula (where) teachers generally chose to de-emphasize some of the more traditional subjects and instead taught more marginalized ones” (p. 38). In an effort to maintain its accreditation and prepare its students for college readiness skills, the book details how newer administrators made institutional decisions that jeopardized its founding intentions.

Tyner-Mullings categorizes public urban alternative schools by their distinct purposes; however, a contextualization of the alternative school movement with a discussion of the early twentieth century progressive schools would have reinforced the vast diversity of alternative schools. In line with the progressive schools of the early twentieth century, CPESS founding principal, Deborah Meier and the teachers at Central Park East Secondary School questioned critically how stakeholders should define child development and the assessment of student achievement. This question is timely as student achievement is beginning to influence more and more aspects of schooling from funding to teacher retention and evaluation systems. The author compels the reader to ask further questions about additional factors influencing how a school could embark upon a philosophical shift and move away from its original founding philosophy. Such questions include how the school’s differences in leadership styles and parents’ criticism of the school throughout the years might have also contributed to the shift. Enter the Alternative School: Critical Answers to Questions in Urban Education is an informative guide for researchers, practitioners, and educators in that it highlights obstacles that all public school communities—district, alternative, charter, urban, and non-urban—may encounter, and possible solutions to overcoming these obstacles.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 29, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17551, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 5:27:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Brown
    William Paterson University
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH BROWN is a Professor of Early Childhood and Elementary Education at William Paterson University and a Board of Trustees member of Learning Community Charter School, a progressive elementary school in Jersey City. Recent publications include: The history of Learning Community Charter School, for a chapter in Susan Semel and Alan Sadovnik’s third edition of the book, Schools of Tomorrow, Schools of Today: What Happened to Progressive Education; Rosenthal, J. and Brown E. (Eds.) (2013) Readings for a Field Based Literacy Class (2013). Linus Publication and Brown, E. (2013) A Close reading and discussion of “Dr. King’s Speech”, Social Studies and the Young Learner.
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