Director of Student Life James Perry has a conflicting relationship with Alternatives. Each year, in the weeks leading up to Alternatives, Perry is disheartened by the flood of emails he receives excusing students from the trips. “I get those [emails] and I ask myself, ‘why do we do this?’ And as numbers drop and I am thinking ‘no one is going to come’,” he said.
Yet, any doubt Perry has towards the sustainability of Alternatives is quickly overcome once the trips conclude. “I just think in some ways it’s a special, irreplaceable program that with the right tweaks I think is worth saving,” he said.
The Alternatives program was started in 1978 in order to provide students not in music classes an alternative trip to Music Tour.
However, the program has since evolved to include all members of the High School, and is a distinctive experience at ASL.
The purpose of Alternatives though, has lost some of its clarity since its inauguration. Perry admits in a meeting amongst the High School administrative team that they conceded there “was no one unifying, clear purpose” for the Alternatives program.
Other faculty members have perceived a similar issue with Alternatives. “Even in the lore that surrounds the origin of the trips, they are identified as an alternative to the music trip. Your purpose then is to not be the music trip but to provide a trip, there is no generative kind of reason for it,” Social Studies Teacher Chris Wolf said. “If we had an overarching purpose and sense of goals that needed to be incorporated, then I think there would be a larger buy-in by the student population.”
Social Studies Teacher Mike McGowan agrees with Wolf and believes that a definite goal for Alternatives needs to be established in order to justify classroom disruption early in the school year. “We’re all a bit in the dark as to why we’re travelling to these places,” McGowan said. “If we have specific goals, there could be more learning outcomes that would come out of it.”
In the programs current iteration, Perry would say all trips fall under one of three categories. “There are a handful of [trips] that truly feel like they get to the core of learning, all about learning, almost more academic than they are touristy. Then there are some that seem to be really good athletic outdoor physical exertion types of opportunities, whether it’s Extreme Norway, or Hiking in the Alps,” Perry said. “Then we have trips like mindfulness in France that I think are wonderfully enriching, but sort of probably fall into their own category.”
Although Ryan Nealis (’17) has enjoyed the four trips he has taken throughout high school, he believes there are major issues facing Alternatives. “Great idea on paper but in real life, is it performing to the way it should?” Nealis said.
Wolf feels a similar uncertainty to Nealis. “I think the current practice is not sustainable, I think there’s too much non-buy-in from many portions of the school,” Wolf said. “I think financially it’s a huge burden for something that many students don’t feel very satisfied with.”
Attendance constitutes one of the single largest issues facing the program. This year, just under 10 percent of High School students were absent during the week of Alternatives, including 27 seniors.
Dani Swanson (’17) did not attend her Alternative to the South of France as she had an interview with a college conflicting with the timing of the trip. This year she has noticed a rise in seniors expressing negative views of Alternatives. “What [seniors] are thinking is, ‘what do I prioritize: Going on a school trip or potentially doing something that will make or break my chances of getting into university?’” Swanson said.
Swanson acknowledges that the negative atmosphere surrounding Alternatives in the senior year is due to timing. “Everyone really resents the fact that Alternatives are when they are,” Swanson said. “Considering the time crunch for applications, the stress, the pick up in work and the importance of quarter one grades for early applications, the seniors really do think the timing is horrific.”
However, Swanson has enjoyed the previous Alternatives she attended and appreciates the chance they give her to travel Europe. “The teachers work really hard and I think it’s such a great opportunity for us to have that ability to just go into Europe, appreciate the culture first hand and learn about the history in the place that it happened.”
Nealis, like Swanson, struggled as a senior with the timing of Alternatives, but also understands the value of having upperclassmen attend. “I think it’s a great idea for freshmen and sophomores, it’s an introduction to high school where they are being put into a position where they can meet upperclassmen,” he said. “But from an upperclassmen perspective, where you are four weeks into school and about to apply to college, I question the validity.”
Still, many students have had extremely positive experiences on their Alternatives. Despite not being able to attend this year due to a knee injury, Ethan Novak (’18) thinks favorably of the trips. “I think they’re doing a good job because they’re giving a wide range of trips, wide range of opportunities in a wide range of places,” he said.
Novak also found when he was a freshmen “there were a lot of upperclassmen that I definitely got significantly closer to… which is definitely nice coming back to the school.”
Libby Reagan (’19), new to ASL this year, had a similar experience to Novak in that attending Alternatives allowed her to meet new people and build friendships. “[Alternatives] really helped me build stronger connections with people in my grade as well as kids in other grades. It helped me get to know more people so I could see friendly faces walking around school,” Reagan said.
The administration is not considering canceling Alternatives as of now. “I would never want to get rid of anything just like I tell someone never quit a job until they have looked in all the different avenues to make something work,” Perry said. “Never quit anything until you’re absolutely sure.”
Wolf wonders if one avenue of improving Alternatives could be redefining the mission of the trips. “I think that we should explore a lot of different options. I personally like the idea of educational opportunities that are not classroom-based,” he said.
Other ideas brainstormed by the faculty include making Alternatives service-based trips, or making the trips divided by grade and more focused on community building.
Changing the timing of Alternatives is another proposal both students and faculty have suggested.
World Languages and Cultures Teacher Whitney Nuchereno believes “the school has recently been more aware of future planning” to be “more conducive to [seniors’] schedules and to any standardized tests.” Nuchereno acknowledges that the timing of the Alternatives likely has to be changed. “You kind of want the [seniors] to take a break away from all that pressure, but it’s not very realistic with the timing of the trips,” she said.
Swanson hopes that a change will allow more seniors to enjoy Alternatives without worrying about the college application process. In regards to a new timing of the trips, Swanson believes it has to be after first semester, perhaps during February or March, or even after Advanced Placement exams.
As of yet, no changes have been made to the Alternatives program. “I think it’s a system with which we can work,” Perry said. “I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor, but I do think reframing what we are doing, how we are doing and why we are doing it is a conversation worth having.”