In light of this year’s school shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Springfield, Oregon, Texas parents may be wondering what the state has been doing about violence in its schools. The answer is: quite a bit. Since 1995, in response to increasingly disruptive behavior and lax discipline, the Legislature has required that the state’s more than one thousand school districts set up, or provide access to, a second, segregated learning environment. When a student commits a simple assault, a minor drug crime, or the like, his school must enroll him in an Alternative Education Program ( AEP). In the 1996-97 school year—the last for which data are available—there were nearly 73,000 students in AEPs, which are accountable to the Texas Education Agency ( TEA). If a student commits a more serious crime, like a drug-related felony or an aggravated assault, he’s sent to a Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program ( JJAEP). This year, there are about 4,500 students in JJAEPs, which are monitored by the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission and run by the juvenile courts in more than twenty Texas counties.
Each AEP is different. In one place it may be a separate campus; in another, a classroom in the same school building with a teacher, a few students, and some textbooks. It can operate according to traditional methods of teaching or it can incorporate therapy and even boot camp—style military drills into its curriculum. But what many have in common is greater attention to each individual student. Smaller classes, a lower student-to-teacher ratio, and staffers who “truly believe they can make a difference” mean troublemakers are better behaved, says Phyllis Mikulak, the alternative education director for the TEA. “I’ve come back from some of the facilities thinking we ought to run every school this way, because the kids love it.” Some teachers are just as enthusiastic. John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, says his members reported in an April poll that there are fewer incidents of violence in class. “They’re telling us that we’ve turned the corner,” he says.
But progress has not come without problems. For one thing, school districts have wrestled with the question of how exactly to set up AEPs, since the legislation mandates local control and offers little guidance beyond that, and there are limited resources allocated. “You’re sent a number of students, and you have a limited number of staff,” says Joe Oliveri, the principal of the Austin Independent School District’s AEP for secondary students. Another issue is compliance: According to Cole, only 30 to 35 percent of teachers polled said their school districts were following the law—meaning nearly two thirds may not be setting up AEPs properly or enrolling students in them. And then there is performance. George Scott, the president of Houston-based Tax Research Association, complains that the TEA has “lousy” academic standards for AEPs, whereas JJAEPs are better directed to bring students up to their appropriate grade level.
But administrators of AEPs insist they’re doing what they can. “Standards are set for AEPs at the local level,” says Billy G. Jacobs, who runs TEA’s Safe Schools program. “We’re in the process of collecting data so we can see where to provide necessary assistance.” In the meantime parents are giving AEPs their seal of approval. After sixteen-year-old Patrick Culberson entered an Austin AEP last year, he renewed his interest in learning and was taught to “take responsibility for his actions,” says his father, Willy Culberson. “It turned his life around.”