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Students from Hillsborough's alternative schools describe challenges, successes

TAMPA — No one blamed the system for their paths to alternative school.

By a show of hands, all 12 teens took responsibility for having been moved out of regular public schools.

But, when pressed, they pointed to things that might have contributed to their difficulties: classes that were large and impersonal, teachers who handed out failing grades without offering help, and fights that could have been prevented if someone had paid attention to the classroom chatter.

''As a teacher, you almost have to have rabbit ears,'' said Allen Bellande, 15.

Wednesday's gathering at Tampa Bay Technical High School was the district's seventh alternative education forum, a chance for kids on the margin to share their perspectives with members of the Hillsborough County School Board.

''I think this is one of the best groups we've had,'' said board member Doretha Edgecomb. ''They were very thoughtful.''

Several hundred Hillsborough students are educated in alternative settings, typically but not always because of discipline issues.

While not going into detail, some kids in Wednesday's group described suspensions that they felt were undeserved, and social pressure to appear tough.

They also gave details of positive experiences at Brandon Alternative, North Tampa Alternative and the Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center.

''Now I'm actually learning more,'' said Maria Bautista of Brandon Alternative. Unlike other teachers whose lessons were hard to follow, she said, ''the teacher walks around'' and encourages participation.

Cody Thurston, also at Brandon Alternative, said the feedback he gets on his assignments is a lot more specific, with one teacher writing, ''If you keep this up, we might have to talk about a future in law.''

Still, many in the group were intent on transitioning back to mainstream schools, and one lobbied deputy superintendent Ken Otero to arrange a transfer before the end of the school year.

There were points of disagreement, mainly on the topic of incentives. About half the group approved of handing out points and prizes to students who pay attention and complete their work. The others cautioned that with too many prizes, students would fail to recognize the intrinsic rewards of learning.

The students who met Wednesday were not chosen at random, but selected because they have improved and are on track to return to mainstream schools.

They were an ambitious group, describing aspirations in law, medicine and the performing arts.

There was just one problem, Otero said.

''I've sat and I've heard everybody say what they want to be,' he said. 'You want to be a policeman. You want to be a doctor. You want to be an engineer. You want to be a graphics arts person.

''I didn't hear one person say they wanted to be a teacher.''

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or

Students from Hillsborough's alternative schools describe challenges, successes 11/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 11:36pm]
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