by Sigrid Bathen published January 02, 2000


For 30 years, Miles P. Richmond was a special-education teacher and administrator in some of the poorest, toughest schools in the Sacramento area, retiring in 1990 as director of special ed for the Grant Joint Union High School District. He is legendary for maintaining a model special-ed program in the impoverished, fractured, politically volatile district that, most recently, made national headlines when a popular senior was murdered in a shop classroom after school, allegedly by an ex-con working as a janitor.

Grant is not a district usually touted as a model to follow in this age of education reform. But Richmond and a group of mostly retired colleagues are quietly working small miracles in a battered old school in a bleak north Sacramento neighborhood. They are part of a growing “alternative school” movement, education bureaucratese for programs that offer alternatives to the regular classroom for the huge population of students who cannot, for many reasons, attend regular classes. While they are students most clearly in need of help from an education system now targeted for unprecedented infusions of attention and cash, it remains to be seen how much they will actually benefit. Veterans like Richmond are understandably skeptical.

Unlike the developmentally disabled kids who were the focus of Richmond’s work for decades, students at the Grant Independent Learning Center, in general, are not physically or mentally limited. Their low achievement has more to do with their lives at home, where drug use, abuse and grinding poverty narrow their options. They may be in foster care, wards of the juvenile-dependency court, and they may have committed crimes. Many are teen mothers headed straight for public dependency. Some are unusually bright, bored and uninspired by the regular curriculum.

They are kids like Jessica (not her real name), who never believed that she could succeed in school. Gifted in art and a voracious reader, she was unable to enroll in the regular school curriculum because she is needed at home to help care for her mother and baby brother. Five other siblings were removed from the home because of her mother’s lifestyle, which Richmond described simply as “men, booze and drugs.” There is no mention of a father.

One of Jessica’s recent paintings was of a forest after a fire. “All the trees were burned, but there was some green coming up out of the earth,” says Richmond. “It was about her mom, her family, the drugs.” When Jessica met Richmond’s wife, Betty, she wanted to know how long they had been married. Answer: 46 years.

Long-term personal commitment isn’t a quality the kids at Grant Independent Learning Center know well, if at all. The stories of the 2,500 kids who have gone through the program in the past five years–most have graduated, many going on to college–are nothing if not daunting.

Like the homeless girl living with her family in their car, who was at the center for two weeks, then disappeared. While at the center, she wrote a poem about homelessness. Entitled “The Other People,” it spoke of “babies in the street, families without hope” and urged onlookers “disgusted” by the homeless not to be too quick to judge. “If you ask me,” the girl concluded, “without the money and the fancy things, we’re all the same.”

“That just grabbed my heart,” recalls Richmond. “We’re going to lose some really bright, valuable kids unless we discover them, and they’re not all wearing Polo sweatshirts.”

A key element of Richmond’s work with the kids in this alternative school, who must sign a contract, complete all assignments and meet with their teachers once each week–more frequently if they don’t finish their work–is the creation of a personal journal. Every morning, students take 15 minutes to write their thoughts down–about anything they choose. There are no computers, no word processors, not even any typewriters in this classroom, and generally none in the homes where the kids live.

Like many unusual and largely unsung alternative programs throughout California, the Grant center is something of a haven for these kids, though it mirrors inner-city schools everywhere–inadequate facilities and funding for books and supplies, technology or the arts. “We’re lucky if we have enough paper and pencils,” says Richmond, “and for a while last winter, we didn’t have any heat.” Yet, the kids have become so enamored of their newfound ability to put thoughts on paper that if he forgets to have them do their journal writing, they remind him.

He especially remembers one student’s entries. “She had a perfect attendance record, was doing great and thinking maybe she really could be a writer,” says Richmond. “One day before school, her boyfriend came over. He had the day off and was pestering her to stay home with him.” She persistently refused, saying she had to go to school, and he kept pressuring her to stay home.

“Finally–and she wrote these very words in her journal that day–she told him; ‘F— you, I’m going to school.’ ” And she did.

“We thought about translating that into Latin, if that’s possible,” Richmond mused, “and putting it on a banner on the wall as a kind of monument to this one girl’s determination to go to school. She lives in two worlds: the world here in independent study, where she has dignity, and the other world, where she is a survivor.”

The personal hurdles many of the kids in programs like Grant’s must overcome are often so overwhelming that their teachers mainly concentrate on just getting them to attend school. While many teachers give mightily of their own resources and time to kids with seemingly insurmountable problems, as Richmond did and does, many others “do their time” and get out, transferring as soon as possible to schools in better neighborhoods.

The 11,000-student Grant district, which includes 12 senior high and middle schools, has expanded the successes of the five-year-old Independent Learning Center (recently named Keema High School, after a popular former district superintendent, Elwood J. Keema) into four community outreach centers, and will send teachers into students’ homes if necessary. Randy Orzalli, director of education options for the district and principal of Keema, is working to expand the program further. He hopes to make the school a center for training teachers in the needs of alternative-school students.

Richmond and his mostly retired-teacher colleagues–the program includes five former principals on its faculty–meet every school day with the kids in the independent learning center, bringing magazines and books from home, eating lunch with their students, saving souls–and a life or two or three–and skeptical that the intense public and political focus on education will translate into money, attention or reform for the state’s most troubled schools and the kids most in need of help. To accommodate the push for class-size reduction, it has been estimated that some 250,000 new teachers must be trained in the next decade. California’s teacher-training system, widely criticized for its rigidity and its mediocrity, will face some serious testing of its own in coming years. Gov. Gray Davis, in his continuing push for education reform, has said he will make teacher training a major priority in his annual budget proposal.

“We can put up a modern building and buy new desks and chairs and bright, shiny textbooks,” says Richmond, “but too often we’ve lost the creativity in education. I don’t think Christ had a credential, or Gandhi, and Plato taught from a stump. Sure, we could use computers, and we need a safe, clean building to work in, and only as many students as you can handle. . . . We have 1975 National Geographics and used textbooks, and we use the free Sacramento Bees we get: the kids say they want practical education, and the stock quotes in the paper are great for teaching math.

“Kids are coming out here, and they’re writing and reading and computing. It’s teaching on the stump. And it works.”

Sigrid Bathen, an adjunct professor at Cal State Sacramento, has written extensively on education.