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In New Haven, An Alternative School Gives Students New Opportunities

Alternative public schools can be the last option for teens and young adults who are at risk of dropping out. They’ve existed since the 1970s, and have had a reputation for being bad schools for bad students. But there is a school in New Haven, Connecticut, that’s trying to change that.

New Light High School is an alternative high school in the Wooster Square area of New Haven. Housed in a former library, there are about 70 students, predominantly black and Latino. They usually work with students who are over-aged and under-credited; the average age of a student is 18.

Ray Coplin is the guidance counselor for all 70 students that attend. While he has taught at other New Haven public schools, he say that he ends up doing more here because of what the typical New Light student goes through.

“Being an alternative school, one of the things that we have to contend with is just the fact that most of our students have never learned how to be students, so the traditional, I guess counselor-y type of things that are commonly dealt with across the district, you know, what college you’re going to, FAFSA forms, financial aid, making sure that your GPA is up, I usually don’t get to have those conversations, with maybe, with just a small minority of our students.”

An alternative school is a public school run by the local or regional school district. In New Haven, the school district uses a lottery system, allowing students and their parents to choose from any of the schools available, including the three alternative schools such as New Light. In fact, there are many students who choose to go to New Light because they feel it will cater to their needs better than in a traditional public school.

“New Haven Academy was, like, a big school, and the teachers wasn’t really as helpful as New Light teachers was.”

That’s Derek. We agreed not to use his last name. He was referred to New Light from New Haven Academy, a magnet school. He graduated this summer from New Light. Derek, like all students, was on an individualized learning plan for students, who may need to work or provide for their families. It was the kind of attention that New Light provides that allowed Derek to connect with the school.

“A teacher here told me, if you feel like you could do that certain thing, then do it, don’t hesitate, don’t procrastinate, and just do it with your heart.”

Dr. Maysa Akbar, founder and executive director of the Integrated Wellness Group, a psychotherapy practice in New Haven, has done extensive research on what she calls “urban trauma,” which is how race and poverty come together and affect youth living in the city. She says many teens and young adults dealing with urban trauma fit the profile of someone attending New Light.

“They have also encountered issues with truancy, absenteeism. Sometimes they are over-aged, but under-credited. Sometimes they do have significant behavioral issues, so they’ve faced suspensions or they’ve gone to expulsion hearings in the past. And then there are times where there’s a complicated family dynamic and family situation.”

New Light has been around for 10 years, and Dr. Akbar says that under its new leadership, they have taken steps in the past year to provide the extra support that many of the students could not get from the schools they were sent from. They incorporated a program called RAP, short for the Reading Advancement Program, which ties social-emotional support with reading support to help them read at their grade level.

“This really worked because New Light really bought into this, they actually made it into a high school credit. And that was what was so awesome about it, because when you get a school that’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I can rally behind this program, absolutely I have kids whose behavioral issues get in the way of their learning, but they’re actually pretty smart and could learn,’ and if we can get that piece in check, then we can actually see them soar.”

Although New Light tries to provide as much support as possible to its students, lack of funding and space makes it difficult at times. Ray Coplin, New Light’s guidance counselor, says that even though they are a public school, they do not always get as much funding as others, mainly due to the types of students they receive.

“When there’s a limited amount of funds, when you have to delegate where those funds and budgeting goes, you know, we are a school that struggles to have students in the building at all times so we’re not the first choice when resources are looking to be allocated. So that makes it difficult, because we have kids that do come everyday and, you know, they’re entitled to the same rights and education as their counterparts are.”

Coplin says that while they can always do more with more, they are committed to working with the students who come and who haven’t abandoned hope.

Anthony Moaton is a former fellow at WSHU.