Joe Barrera

The prevalence of school shootings should lead to a rigorous re-evaluation of the way we organize our schools. Even if we cannot easily see the connection, the alienation that leads students to kill other students is caused in very large part by the present school system.

To be alienated is to live in isolation, distanced from other people even if we interact with them every day. Alienation means that we experience minimal integration into society, and we do not learn allegiance to shared values. Alienation is ignorance of or willful disregard of social norms. When we are alienated we feel powerless. Alienation breeds a type of victimhood that can turn into murderous bitterness. Kids in school who are alienated are often friendless, bullied, ostracized, made to feel unwanted and unloved. That’s a dangerous state for anybody but especially deadly for vulnerable adolescents.

We cannot entirely blame the schools because it is our dysfunctional society that creates alienation. Schools, however, are a reflection of the larger society. They always magnify and make more intense positive and negative characteristics of society. This means that alienation is always magnified in the school setting and becomes a primary cause of mass murder, aided and abetted by the outmoded system.

Why does the existing school model cause alienation? It is the impersonal nature of the system that is to blame. What we have in the schools, with a few modifications, is the “factory model” of education. The term for it is “shibboleth,” something with inflexible outmoded principles and methods.

I won’t describe the school factory model. Everyone of us knows it from our school days. We can remember the alienated kids who could not function in the rigid mechanical system. Maybe we were one of the alienated kids and are still recovering. Many of us can thank our lucky stars that we survived school.

How do we change the schools? We need much more engagement of adults with children, especially in high schools. This is not new. The outline which follows has been implemented in many places.

First, we abolish the big schools, the high schools with the 2,000-3,000 student populations. We take these large schools and break them up into smaller ones, each one with its staff and teachers. But they can share the buildings. We can fit two or three smaller high schools in some of the huge factory-style buildings.

The rationale for this is to create manageable units with sufficient staff who can give the students much more individualized attention. It means that we hire more people and that’s expensive, but you either pay now or pay later when kids turn into convicts or grieving seizes a community after a shooting.

We get rid of the assembly line of the typical school day, as students march in linear fashion from one subject to another. No more 45-minute periods. No more bells, no more chaos in crowded hallways as kids run from one classroom to another. And no more ninth grade, 10th grade, etc. Instead, we institute team teaching, with teams of 5-6 teachers engaging with their own cohort of 20-30 students for the entire day, for the high school careers of the students, each cohort in its own room and carefully mentored by the adults who support one another.

No teacher can effectively teach every student. Personalities get in the way. But with a team of 5-6 teachers the odds are good that every kid will be reached. Every student will work at his or her own pace, learning the diverse curriculum, taught by cross-trained teachers who can teach multiple subjects.

For instance, student X will learn algebra in one semester, but student Y will need two or three semesters. But both will receive intense, personalized, carefully crafted instruction. If a student manifests anti-social tendencies or special needs, the personal knowledge that the team teachers possess will make for successful interventions. Alienation will simply not be allowed to happen.

We change the progression of students. The Early College model is one attempt at doing this. But nowhere is it carved in stone that every student has to graduate at age 18 or be forced to drop out of school. The dropout rate is a big problem, especially in minority communities, and the simple expedient of changing the age limits can do much to correct it. Students should be able leave high school for two-three years and come back to “senior high schools” and finish in their 20s.

This will create a demand for many more vocational high schools for the students who will not go to college and we can do that. We can do so much to change the schools. And it’s not that difficult.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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