By Matthew Tungate
Four first-time alternative education Best Practice Sites have very different missions and students, but they share one important thing in common: the belief that all students will learn at a high level.
They also offer students something less tangible but no less important: hope for a brighter future.
Six of the 10 schools named Best Practice Sites have achieved the honor before. But four – Maryhurst School (Jefferson County), McDaniel Learning Center (Laurel County), Monroe County Falcon Academy and Morehead Youth Development Center (Rowan County) – were named for the first time this year.
Maryhurst is a public school housed at a residential treatment center for girls aged 12-18 who have been severely abused and traumatized, according to Associate Principal Jill Tabor. While treatment is the top priority at Maryhurst, the school follows district and state curriculum guidelines to ensure students are academically equipped for college and prepared to function in society, she said.
Even though most of the girls are exempt from taking state accountability tests, the school has initiated numerous programs to help remediate students who have fallen behind and provide enrichment to those who are gifted.
“It comes from a basic philosophy of education that all students will learn at a high level, no matter where they are,” said Principal Michele Eckels, who oversees all 13 state agency educational programs in the Jefferson County school district. “We don’t just set those aside and say, ‘Well, our kids can’t do it.’ We say, ‘Our kids can do it.’”
The McDaniel Learning Center serves students from both North Laurel and South Laurel high schools with computer-based, individualized instruction. Director Roger Wright said most students are more than a year behind in credits, and they use online learning programs to learn at their own pace. Class sizes are 15:1, and teachers are more facilitators than lecturers, he said.
“Students come to McDaniel and receive the individual help that they need,” he said. “You see such a sense of accomplishment in some of these kids that have never had a whole lot of success in school.”
The Monroe County Falcon Academy began as an alternative to suspension a decade ago, but Principal Max Petett said the district wanted to do more for students enrolled in its alternative program. So in 2006 the school expanded its mission to include credit recovery, early intervention and Response to Intervention. It has since grown to include an aviation program that includes students from the traditional high school.
“We wanted to not just cover information but, to the best we could, teach it to proficiency. The only way we could do that was to raise our standards. We wanted our kids to score just as well on the end-of-the-year assessments as the kids at the high school. We felt like we had to raise the standards and expectations to do that,” Petett said. “An overwhelming number of kids we’ve had have been very, very successful without us watering down our standards and expectations of them.”
Unlike the other three, the Morehead Youth Development Center is run by the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice, although Rowan County school district teachers work in the school. The school houses the nation’s only greyhound rehabilitation center run by juveniles, according to Paula Stafford, Rowan County Middle School assistant principal and district administrator for the center.
She said most juvenile detention centers don’t coordinate as closely with the local school districts as the Morehead center.
“We hold high standards for our students. We have the same expectations for them to achieve as if they were on campus at the high school or at the middle school, and we are dedicated to making sure they have the same opportunities as other students do,” Stafford said.
While the four schools have different missions, they all work with students who, for one reason or another, aren’t successful in traditional school.
Patty Miller, who teaches electives at the McDaniel Learning Center, said teachers might not even know about their students’ challenges if they were in a traditional school setting.
“Obviously they are facing obstacles or they weren’t successful in the traditional setting, or they wouldn’t be MLC students,” she said. “They develop a sense of pride in accomplishing things that they thought were unreachable, and that in itself takes them a long way. Their work at MLC gives them hope for their future.”
Another similarity the programs share is that they all assess where students are academically when they come into the program and use that information to help guide their instruction.
Donna Stanley, lead teacher at the Morehead Youth Development Center, said teachers have very little input in how long students are even at the school. So they have to “go full speed ahead” as soon as the students enter the program, filling in gaps as quickly as possible.
“Whether it’s three weeks or three years, it’s our responsibility to ensure they’ve got the best educational opportunity that they can have in that length of time,” she said. “That’s just our main goal: To help these children get back to where they can go back to public school and they can be successful and have confidence in what they’re able to accomplish,” she said.
Maryhurst mathematics teacher Varina Sausman said her classes, like those at the other schools, have more diversity in age and grade level than at traditional schools. That requires doing multiple lesson plans and a lot of remediation for students who, for instance, may be trying to earn an Algebra I credit but haven’t mastered multiplication.
“It’s very much starting where the kids are at and building from there,” she said
Eckels said the idea that alternative schools are a place for teachers to go into semi-retirement is outdated and incorrect. Alternative school teachers have to do just as much preparation and self-improvement as teachers in traditional schools, and they are often dealing with at-risk students.
Tabor added, “These situations are not for everybody.”
Wright said hiring quality teachers, including those with Advanced Placement experience, is one of many things the McDaniel Learning Center has done correctly. When students struggle with their online learning, the teacher will step in and reteach lessons in a different way, he said.
“They hired teachers who were really good,” Wright said. “They have a real love for the program and are genuinely concerned about the kids’ welfare.”
Stanley said teachers at the Morehead Youth Development Center try to instill in students the enjoyment of lifelong learning.
“As educators, I don’t think we would be in the position we’re in if we don’t always want to improve,” she said.
“It’s the things that can help us improve in the classroom that can help us be better for our girls.”
But working with students in alternative settings isn’t easy, Sausman said.
“Before you do anything here, you have to build relationships,” she said.
Doing just that is another similarity between the programs.
Reena Hollinsworth, a mathematics teacher at the Monroe County Falcon Academy, said many of her students simply need some one-on-one attention, and they are eager to work hard once they get it.
“For example, I taught a high school student how to multiply by using the old abacus. When he finally saw what multiplication meant, he wanted to show Mr. Petett. He never had any trouble trying to figure out his multiplication again. He’d always go back to the abacus if he needed extra help. It’s been the most rewarding job I’ve ever had,” she said.
Wright, the McDaniel Learning Center director, said his school has a program called the Discovery Program entirely devoted to working with students and whatever issues they are facing.
“It’s probably one of the best things about the place,” he said. “To me if they had to have one class over here, it would be that one to get them prepared for life. It’s by far the kids’ favorite and by far the teachers’ favorite.”
Miller said the Discovery Program is a character education class where students work with a teacher in small groups to talk about decision making, anger management, team and individual skill building, communication, and conflict resolution.
“This class gives students a chance to break away from the computer instruction and learn how to cope with and handle situations that they go through every day in a productive manner,” she said. “I believe this class is the heart of MLC because we see most students really evolve in maturity and in their quest to be successful.”
Petett, principal at Monroe County Falcon Academy, said students have ended up in alternative programs for a reason, and teachers and administrators should not forget that.
“So many of our kids that we serve in alternative schools, they have a story behind the face. And most of the time, the story is really, really sad,” he said. “Whatever the situation, they’re still under our charge, and we should be professionally and personally obligated to those students to provide them the best. Anything less than that is not fair to the kids.”
Noah Glass, the English/language arts teacher at Maryhurst, said teaching alternative students comes with a heavy burden to bear. In some schools teachers may be the difference in whether students drop out or graduate. At his school, he believes he and his colleagues could be the difference between whether a child is a contributing member of society or becomes a burden on society.
“We really believe what we’re teaching is crucial because it’s the difference between them making it in life or not.”
Sausman, Glass’s colleague at Maryhurst, said alternative students need just a little bit extra.
“Some of them are so close,” she said. “They just want someone to believe in them.”