Portrait of an Alternative School: Using Narratives to Explore Teacher-Student Relationships

Publication Date


Type of Culminating Activity


Degree Title

Doctor of Education in Curriculum and Instruction


Curriculum, Instruction, and Foundational Studies

Major Advisor

Robert D. Barr, Ph.D.


Jennifer Snow-Gerono, Ph.D.


Lamont Lyons, Ed.D


Bruce Ballenger, Ph.D.


This descriptive study focused on the characteristics and dynamics of teacher-student relationships in an alternative high school environment over a ten year time frame. Using the qualitative method of Portraiture (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997; Michie, 1999, 2005), interviews were conducted with teachers and staff at an alternative high school in a small town in the Midwest, documenting their "voices" both collectively and individually. In keeping with the dialogic nature of Portraiture, the researcher "sketched" the context of her lived experience (van Manen, 2003), and through narrative, "painted" the portrait of the school through six individual portraits, which acted as collaborative, "co-constructed narratives between active meaning-makers" (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). The findings suggested that alternative school programs were not supported by central school district administration, nor given the tools and resources they needed to do their work. Teachers and students interacted in a positive, caring, and supportive school environment, and they resisted negative perceptions of alternative schools and stereotypes about learning. Teachers and staff were creative in their approach to serving the needs of their students, by "dumpster diving" or by breaking the rules if necessary, to offer the best possible education. The findings demonstrated a "surrogate family atmosphere" (Barr & Parrett, 2001; 2003) at work at Magnetic North Alternative School, and added to the broader discussion of what makes an effective alternative school. The dialogue concluded by looking critically at alternative schools as "warehouses for unwanted kids" and calling for all educators to make more student-centered, relationship-centered instructional decisions.

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