Lehman Alternative Community School
The Lehman Alternative Community School (LACS) is a nationally renowned public, alternative, combined middle and high school in the Ithaca City School District in Ithaca, New York. Serving grades 6-12 with approximately 305 students, the school is known for its small class size, non-traditional curricula, and focus on active student participation. Demand to attend the school greatly exceeds available space, and the waiting list to enter the school generally exceeds 240 applicants. Analogous to Brown University, the academic philosophy of the school is based on the premise that students should be influential in shaping their education.
In 1974, parents and teachers in Ithaca, New York, rallied support on the school board to create a junior high school that would provide students with an educational experience that would be empowering, relevant, and democratic. David Lehman was recruited to be the school's first principal and to help develop the curriculum. The resulting program was the New Junior High Program (NJHP) for grades 7 through 9, and was housed in the old Markles Flats building on the corner of Court and Plain Streets in downtown Ithaca. In 1977, the program was moved to Ithaca High School's E-Building, and in 1978, grades 10–12 were added. The original configuration for the expanded school was two programs with the senior high named the Alternative Community High School (ACHS). In 1981, grade 6 was added and the school was unified into a single 6–12 entity called the Alternative Community School (ACS). NJHP, ACHS, and ACS all embraced democratic shared governance by the students, staff, principal, and parents. In the early years of NJHP, staff and students would gather at the beginning of each "cycle" (quarters) to hammer out a schedule of classes together. Students could offer classes and teachers could take classes. As the school grew from the original 60 or so junior high students, the scheduling by consensus became prohibitively time consuming, but to this day one of the center pieces of the school's educational philosophy is its commitment to participatory, democratic decision making.
In 1983, the program moved to its current location in the former West Hill Elementary School at 111 Chestnut St. In 1987, the school joined the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national secondary school reform movement initiated by Ted Sizer of Brown University that emphasizes depth over breadth in education, among other key principles. This led LACS to develop its own unique set of high school graduation requirements and alternative means of evaluating student progress toward school those requirements, moving completely away from the old high school "credit system" and New York State Regents Exams. This work led LACS to be designated, in the fall of 1992, as one of the first fourteen "Compact Partnership Schools" under the Board of Regents and Commissioner's "New Compact for Learning," a document calling for major reforms in education for the state of New York. With a new board of Regents in the years that followed and after countless phone calls, letters and presentations to the state government by staff and students of LACS, the school's leadership was ignored in the rush to move to stricter high-stakes testing. Although LACS high school students were exempted from the state-wide examinations for many years, recent policy changes have slowly begun to phase in the exam. The school has been fighting the change in the legislature and in the court system as part of a consortium of New York State alternative schools.
Following his retirement in 2004, the Ithaca City School District renamed the school after its founder and longtime principal, David Lehman. His name was not officially added until in 2010 a proposal passed to officially add the word "Lehman" to the name.
As an alternative school, LACS offers broad academic freedom to its students, and they are encouraged to design their own course of study. Every student is part of a "committee" that meets twice weekly to aid in the keeping of the school, and the school meets in an All School Meeting every week to vote on issues facing the school. Students are on a first name basis with their teachers, and some students help teach electives in topics like computer programming, beading, or another area of their special interest. Rather than receive grades, students receive written narrative evaluations, and also reflect and evaluate on their own learning at the end of each semester.
Progress in many, although still not all, high school classes is measured in a program called "Graduation by Exhibition." In it, students create portfolios to demonstrate their mastery of core subjects, rather than taking a single test at the end of their studies. At the end of their senior year, each student also is responsible for completing a "senior project" that allows the student to demonstrate their learning, usually in a way that connects back to the community. Past projects have included dance performances, written plays, murals, sewing projects or the setup and execution of a class or event. After finishing middle school, students also must complete an "eighth grade challenge project" of the same nature to prove their readiness for high school work.
All students and most faculty participate in "family groups." Family groups combine some of the functions of a home room, support group, and guidance office. Each family group spends time bonding, going over scheduling, helping to make decisions about school governance, and fundraising for the annual spring trips. However, Family Groups have widely been regarded as not fulfilling their original purposes in recent years, and there have been moves to reform their goals.
A great part of LACS’ approach to non-traditional learning is the two annual away from school trips that the entire school attends. Students, faculty, and staff join together in two yearly special retreats. These out of school events are used to help students learn and connect with each other outside of the traditional classroom setting. In the fall, the entire school takes a two-day retreat to the nearby Arnot Forest. Here students are encouraged to explore the grounds and engage in different activities all while creating relationships outside of the classroom with each other as well as faculty and staff. In the spring, students choose from among several possible weeklong away or local trips. Some trips go hiking, canoeing, bicycling, or fishing. Local trips often take days during the week to visit nearby museums or film videos about the community. “Trips week” was created to give students the opportunity to challenge themselves and work within a group in a non-school environment. Two of the most popular week longs trips happen to be community service trips. One annual away trip visits the Akwesasne Native American reservation while the other trip travels to New Orleans to engage in Hurricane Katrina clean up and restoration. Students who are involved in these annual trips spend the whole year in a Family Group together fundraising for their spring trip. Language students have the option of joining a Family Group that spends the year fundraising for a weeklong trip to a French- or Spanish-speaking country.
Another thing that sets LACS aside from other schools are the projects that are offered Tuesday afternoons and Thursday mornings. Project time is another approach that LACS takes to alternative learning. Project time gives students the opportunity to gain skills and knowledge in a different way other than sitting in a classroom day in and day out. There isn’t a lack in the endless possibilities when it comes to picking projects. Students can chose educational projects, physical projects and projects that are just plan fun. Project time gives students and staff the opportunity to get their hands on different forms of doing and learning. A few of the many projects offered are silkscreening, floor hockey and community service. This time can also be used as resource time, for science, math or portfolio completion.
Classes are small, and a few classes meet in multi-disciplinary blocks of 90 minutes, rather than traditional 45 minute periods. For example, science and mathematics classes are often taught together as an integrated subject, as are English and Social Studies classes. The school believes that this fosters greater understanding and synthesis of the subjects. This has led to discussions about moving to a fully block schedule. However, after long discussion among students and staff, the school decided not to adopt the schedule proposed by the current principal, due to other problems in the proposed schedule, such as shortening of Family Group and Committee meetings and difficulty in scheduling some classes.
The LACS student body has unique, democratic, student government. Once a week, on Wednesdays, an All-School Meeting (ASM) is held. During ASMs, students and staff discuss and vote on proposals to change the school - proposals that are brought by students and staff alike. Meetings are organized and facilitated by the "Agenda Committee", a committee almost exclusively composed of students.
One of the goals of the LACS community is to create a sustainable community that integrates sustainability into all aspects of the school, including the school lunch program, various classes, and volunteer opportunities. For example, LACS works closely with the Youth Farm in Ithaca, in order to obtain local, organic produce for use in school lunches. As another example, certain classes, such as Dan Flerlage's Ecology class, focus on studying natural systems and discussing what humans can learn from these systems.
- Lehman Alternative Community School
- Coalition of Essential Schools
- New York State School Report Card Comprehensive Information Report from the New York State Education Department