The Wall Street Journal carries an article today* about the bankruptcy of an expensive Running Springs, California, school for troubled teens. The school offered outdoor programs and psychological help, along with academics for teens, whose parents and whose public schools could not deal with them. This story touched a number of my interests and reinforced my slowly growing belief that only radical restructuring of compulsory education will solve this problem, along with many other problems afflicting schools, children, and the public. We had a vacation home in Running Springs. The town sits at the top of the San Bernardino mountains, above Southern California's persistent marine layer, offering breath-taking views of the stars at night, pine-scented clean air, and hushed snow falls in the winter. We even had a brook in our back yard. It was difficult to resist. During this time, we were raising our own troubled teenage son and took in three other troubled teens for varying lengths of time. One was my sister's son, an alcoholic and drug addict at fifteen; another was the grandson of an elderly woman who lived across our street, who lived with us for a year; the third was a runaway, rebellious, teen girl, dabbling in drugs, who stayed with us for four months. We threw ourselves into the lives of these kids. My progress in my professional career ground to a halt, because they took so much time. My wife and I came to feel that we were not able to do much - certainly not as much as we wished - to help them grow to be healthy, independent young adults. We kept the two boys out of jail; that undoubtedly helped keep them out of further trouble. The girl had a startlingly beautiful voice and loved singing. We arranged for private voice lessons at home for her, thinking that she might organize her life around her extraordinary singing potential; but she did not. We concluded that by the time these teens came to us, the damage to them - inflicted by themselves, by genetics, and by others - had largely been done and there was little we could do about it. Our main task was to keep them out of trouble and to be there for them, trying to teach them that at least some adults would not let them down. We realized that some of their problems were rooted in the vast biological, hormonal, and psychological forces exploding in their bodies and their lives. If we could keep them straight until these explosions subsided, maybe they could make it on their own.
Looking at these youths, it seemed clear then and it is clearer now that the compulsory public school system was not appropriate for them. In my son's case, that was decisively true. He was kicked out of intermediate school, put into alternative school, and required to do public service, for taking a knife to school and showing the knife in a fight with bullys on school grounds. (He was naive, to say the least; and - thank you, God - not hurt, nor did he hurt anyone in the incident.) In my nephew's case, that was again decisively true. The school in his home town would not want him, for good reason; he was one step from a psychiatric prison. We struggled to keep the young man from across the street, who is black, in high school and out of gangs; we succeeded. He eventually graduated and did not join a gang. The girl left and ran away to Las Vegas. She came back a few years later to introduce us to her boy friend, whom she was to marry. He was a minister and was signing up for the Marines. We don't know what has happened to her after that.
Is there anything the public schools can do for troubled teens such as these? Probably not. Should the public schools do anything for them? No - keeping these kids in school harms them and interrupts the regular school program. But troubled teens are not a marginal problem; they are symtomatic of problems that point to the philosophical mistake of compelling all teens to go to a one-size-fits-all, compulsory, centralized, massive, academic school. If we would reform the public schools, we should reform them so that most teens would benefit.
Here are some radical suggestions.
1. End compulsory schooling when a child reaches age 14 years.
2. Permit teens to work full-time beginning at age 14 years.
3. Replace compulsory schooling with a requirement that, until reaching age 18 years, teens must either be in school or be in an approved job.
4. Permit manual labor - simple hard physical work - for teens between 14 and 18.
5. License and regulate private employers to employ groups of teens where group labor is appropriate. I am thinking of agricultural labor. Groups of teens might live on farms and do farm labor.
6. Expand ROTC and military, police, and fire cadet programs in high schools, including paying the cadets and requiring summer training programs, so that youths have the opportunity to do military-style training. Provide the opportunity for cadets to take full-time training and take one, two, or more years away from academic schooling.
7. Create school vouchers. Let vouchers be used for school and labor subsidy.
None of this would work as a governmental national service program. We definitely should not create a national, governmental youth service program. State and/or federal government should be kept out of creating and running labor. Their roles should be limited to normal health and safety regulation and labor regulation to prevent labor abuse.
I suggest that as many as 33% of all high-school age students might participate in the opportunities offered in these suggestions in one year and as many as 50% of all students before the age of 19. I made up these statistics, simply to illustrate that we should not be afraid of a very large number of students not attending school all the time.
I know that these proposals fly in the face of progressive education philosophy, which is based on the notion that compulsory education is necessary and that teen labor is not a good idea. Nonetheless, there are several observations that support them.
A. In the teen years, many boys - and some girls - need continual, strenuous physical labor. They need also to learn how to be part of a team. School team sports do not solve the problem.
B. Taking jobs at 14 years would benefit, not hurt, most teens. Even strenuous farm labor would be beneficial.
I mention a small personal note. I got a labor permit at 14 and worked as a farm laborer, hoeing rows, weeding, picking, six days a week, from May to September. I bicycled five miles to the farm at 5AM and 5 miles home at 5PM or later. I worked with a half dozen other teen boys, under the supervision of an older teen boy. I was thrilled to work and earn money. The labor was good for my growing body. I know, from conversations with teens and young adults, that many youths feel pressure or would otherwise like to be able to work to assist their families, as well as themselves.
C. Being out of school for a year or for several years would not hurt teenagers' long-term schooling. Already, in trying to accommodate troubled teens, public schools offer alternative schools and continuation schools. These proposals would expand such programs for many more teens.
John Hechinger and Anne Marie Chaker, "Boarding-School Options Shift for Troubled Teens."