Developmental needs and student engagement in an alternative high school

Jones, Jeffrey N, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Deutsch, Nancy, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Gregory, Anne, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Mashburn, Andrew, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Pianta, Robert, Dean's Office, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Developmental Needs and Student Engagement in An Alternative High School America's public high schools provide instructional and developmental support for the country's emerging adolescents. But for some students, this support falls short of fulfilling their educational and social needs, leading to academic failure and school disengagement. While there has been much interest in the dropout phenomenon, much less attention has been given to programs designed to prevent school dropout. This two-part research focuses on how an alternative high school promotes the developmental needs of its students, and the effects of this support on student engagement and experience. I take an interpretive ethnographic approach, combining observations and interviews with 24 students and 12 teachers to gain access to the inner world of individual perceptions and lived experiences. This methodological strategy allows for the study of sociocultural influences and helps to contextualize student experience within this alternative educational setting.

For the first research objective, I focus on an alternative high school's implementation of choice theory (Glasser, 1998), and its influence on student experience and academic engagement. In this context, choice theory affects students' social and relational experiences, interactions with authority, and participation in the learning process. This provides support in other areas of their lives and across developmental domains. Student narratives speak of how the school practices that are informed by choice theory provide support through a deliberate focus on developmental needs.

In the second objective, I center on the processes of student engagement and changes that result from attending the alternative high school. I work from cognitive theories of motivation, and use the constructs of the participation-identification model (Finn, 1989), a leading theoretical frame for dropout prevention. Youth comments are consistent with a multidimensional view of student motivation. Students describe emotional engagement as preceding behavioral and academic changes in the setting. Their narratives both confirm and expand upon current models that describe engagement in the learning process for at-risk youth. This research can further the understanding of how educational settings can be organized to support adolescent developmental needs, and in doing so, support social and academic growth for students that struggle in traditional school settings.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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