Nothing defines Alternatives Unlimited so much as its founder, Stuart Berger, and his leadership team. This is a company that focuses more on the value of students than on the bottom line. Not that the bottom line isn’t important, but the mission, these educators agree, is paramount. In fact, when challenges crop up — as they do almost daily — the response is often driven by a need to keep going for the sake of the students as much as for the continuing health and growth of the company. Just as other voices are starting to be heard across the country that new strategies need to be found to help students regain their confidence and their competence in this global world, the administrators at Alternatives Unlimited seek to make sure the profoundly at-risk students that AU’s programs serve don’t fall behind either. Here’s how AU’s founder, Stuart Berger, and other members of the leadership team — Sylvia Jones and John Sullivan — explain it .
Stuart Berger is the founder of Alternatives Unlimited. He started his career as a high school English teacher and guidance counselor, later serving as superintendent of schools for seven school districts in three states. He also is a member of the Texas Bar.
“Every student can learn, although not in
the same way or even on the same day.”
When Stuart Berger heard that quote, decades ago, he immediately recognized it as the theme of his career. “How simple,” he thought. “How obvious.”
“I certainly don’t claim ownership,” he laughs, “But it is perfect.”
Does he truly believe it? “Yes, I absolutely do,” he says. “I believe every single child can earn a high school diploma. But they have so many issues going on, problems at home, problems on the street. And you have to want that diploma.”
Inspiring kids to “want” that diploma and figuring out how to help them learn would become his guiding educational philosophy as he moved through superintendencies of increasingly larger school districts in Ohio, Kansas and Maryland. Whether through innovative programs for gifted and talented students in the 1970s, the inauguration of magnet schools, especially in poorer neighborhoods, in the 1980s, or the strengthening of alternative programs and special education throughout his career, Stuart Berger understood No Child Left Behind before it became a federal program and a politicized mantra.
From the start, Dr. Berger realized that the students he most wanted to help were the very ones who weren’t getting an education regardless of the rhetoric. Every student can learn . . . no child left behind . . . falling through the cracks: to Dr. Berger it was more talk than anything else.
“We are in such a unique situation today with the economy and the number of high school dropouts. We must educate ourselve out of this. To me, that’s obvious, and I think it will happen. It has to.”
But Stuart had another dream.
“I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and was pretty sure I could be a good one,” he says of his decision to leave the superintendency but not public education.
So in the late 1990s, he left the superintendency to launch a company — Alternatives Unlimited — that could provide the kinds of services that would turn the rhetoric to action. For at-risk students, that meant getting them to graduation day. He never plans to give up on them.
“It’s been a genuine thrill to be a part of the Alternatives Unlimited (AU) evolution through the years. Watching the company grow from 12 small schools servicing hundreds of students in a few states a decade ago to the company it has grown into today has been nothing less than remarkable. At the end of the 2010-11 school year, Alternatives Unlimited was providing a combination of day school and tutoring services to nearly 8,000 students in almost 20 states.”
In his view, the company’s growth has been marked by many heartwarming triumphs.
Clear proof, he points out, is the constant growth, new endeavors, and, most importantly, the more than 1,000 high school diplomas earned in Drop Back In (DBI), the ongoing improvement in state test scores for free tutoring students, and the hundreds of students who have successfully transitioned back to home schools from AU’s alternative programs.
John Sullivan earned a B.A. in English from Towson University in the early 90s eventually joining Alternatives Unlimited in 2001. Prior to assuming the role as the company’s chief executive in August 2011, John held several leadership positions with AU managing different aspects of the company’s educational divisions as well as administrative operations. From this vantage point, he has had the privilege of developing progressive education programs hand-in-hand with public school district leadership.
The blending of private enterprise ingenuity and public school system expertise has resulted in school and tutoring models equipped to meet the changing needs of today’s students and communities. The experience has convinced John that public-private partnerships will continue to be an integral aspect of the solution to the challenge facing public education.
“With the all the new districts signing on for AU services, and the new and expanding endeavors, it is always heartwarming to be reminded of what it’s all truly about. I recently had the opportunity to meet with district officials for a current DBI program. The conversation largely dealt with funding, operations, data, etc.
“At one point in the discussion, one of the district representatives was recounting for her district colleague a DBI graduation she attended. She literally shed tears as she explained the excitement some of our students’ families displayed as they witnessed a moment they never thought would arrive: Their child walking across the stage to receive a high school diploma. The recalled celebration as well as the pause the recollection brought to the meeting table served as a profound reminder of just how important our work is.”
Sylvia Jones has been with AU since its first alternative school opened in Spring Branch, Texas, in 1998
“As a child,” Ms. Jones recalls, “I remember playing school in my garage. So, I guess I was always meant to be a teacher.”
After graduating from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, with a bachelor’s degree in physical education, she moved from Louisiana to Houston to begin a teaching career, enrolling as well at Prairie View A&M University to obtain a Masters in education and mid-management certification in administration.
“Soon after, I became a public school administrator in an inter-city middle school in Houston. It was during these years that I realized I not only enjoyed working with troubled youth, but professionally I could help these kids find success.”
She continues, “During my time with Alternatives Unlimited, I have seen much growth of the company. But more than that, I have also seen endless success stories for many of our students. How great it is to work with a company that has the same belief that I do: that all children can learn; they just need teachers who want to work with them to find what techniques are needed to help them achieve. AU does that by offering a second and sometimes a last chance to students, who feel they will never be able to attend school, much less earn their high school diplomas.”
“Unlimited,” she says is truly what AU is all about: Unlimited opportunities for students to learn and find success, regardless of what it takes. “How lucky I am that I am fortunate enough to be among the people that help make it happen (success) for our youth.”