By Mike Marsee
Quality alternative programs can take many forms, but they all have the same goal.
No matter where they are located or who they serve, the teachers are working to give students their best chance to graduate on time and to be prepared to take the next step.
“We do our best to make sure everybody stays on track to graduate and be where they need to be at the end of the school year,” said Lucinda Mills, the head teacher at McCracken Regional School (MRS).
MRS is one of seven programs recognized by the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) as Alternative Programs of Distinction earlier this year.
“These programs demonstrate that alternative programs can work in a variety of settings,” said Sherri Clusky, a program consultant with KDE’s Division of Student Success. “Faculty and staff at these sites are doing tremendous work, in some cases in settings that are very nontraditional.
“An alternative program should be a place that’s different than the student’s original home school, but also a place where a student gets a quality education.”
Here’s how three programs keep their students on track to graduate:
McCracken County program succeeds in unique environment
McCracken Regional School is different, even for an alternative program. The school is contained within the McCracken Regional Juvenile Detention Center, a facility that serves 16 counties in west Kentucky.
“Teaching in a short-term facility is a vastly different setting,” Mills said. “The average length of stay for our kids is about 14 1/2 days. It’s difficult to take those best practices that you would see in a conventional school and apply them to us.”
With no time to lose, the staff of three teachers gets right to work when a new student comes to them.
“We hit the ground running. When kids come in here, we get them assessed in a day or so in math and reading because we need to know where to start,” Mills said. “But we treat everybody who walks in the door like they’re going to be here for a long time.”
The school usually serves about 20 to 25 students in the juvenile detention center. Mills has been at the regional school for all 18 years of its existence, and she has seen countless success stories.
“Most of them are going back to their home community at some point, and we have got to make sure not only that they are successful here, but that they’ve got the skills to be successful out there when they’re not in a secure facility,” she said.
“Most of them have a history of behavioral problems and many of them have missed out on a lot of basic academic skills, and that’s made it difficult for them to be successful as high school students. We’re trying to keep them on track to graduate and attempting to remediate those deficit areas as best we can.”
Students at McCracken Regional put in more time in the classroom than at almost every other school. The school calendar includes 210 instructional days, 40 more than are required by law.
The local public library provides reading materials to the school, and the school’s offerings include a 4-H club that hopes to start a community garden at the facility next year.
“We try to keep the kids busy and try to keep them academically engaged,” Mills said. “Along with academics, we are, of course, trying to teach social skills. It’s an all-around education.”
Mills said she believes this is the first time a program at a juvenile detention center has been recognized as an Alternative School of Distinction.
“Obviously, we’re thrilled,” she said.
Credit recovery the focus at Laurel County program
Not just any student can get into McDaniel Learning Center (MLC).
Students must be vetted before they’re allowed into the Laurel County alternative program, which focuses primarily on credit recovery and students who aren’t on track to graduate from North Laurel or South Laurel high schools.
“Nobody is court-ordered or sent to us,” Principal Jeremy Kidd said. “I tell people in the community it’s very competitive to get into the alternative program.”
Students who aren’t on track to graduate and are interested in attending MLC must go through an application and interview program, after which they might be placed on a watch list or brought into the program immediately.
“We want students who want to be here, who want to learn, who want to have that opportunity,” Kidd said. “We try to eliminate the barriers, get them on track to graduate and make sure they have a plan for when they leave here.”
Kidd said many of the students who come to MLC know it might be their only remaining path to graduation.
“Sometimes I think it should be called a fresh start program, because it might be their last chance to acquire a high school diploma,” he said. “So they’re taking it seriously.”
MLC serves about 60 students with a staff of four teachers, a counselor and Kidd, who is in his third year as principal.
The school uses technology-based learning in addition to classroom instruction to help students progress at their own pace.
Students can graduate at any time during the year, and the school has graduated more than 500 students since it opened in 2008.
He said many of those students take pride in saying they graduated from MLC.
“Once they get here, they love it,” Kidd said.
Regional Schools Program casts a wide net
It might seem like a tall task to get a dozen school districts to agree on anything, but 12 northern Kentucky districts are all in with the Northern Kentucky Cooperative for Educational Services’ (NKCES) Regional Schools Program.
The alternative program serves students from districts in Campbell, Kenton and Pendleton counties and has served students from Boone County.
“Actually, I think that’s been one of the strengths of the program, that they’ve worked really well together,” NKCES Executive Director Amy Razor said. “We have an advisory board that oversees and takes ownership in the school, and they’ve agreed to make the school work to meet the students’ needs.
“Everybody’s a really good regional steward. They all see the value in this program and find ways to help the program be successful,” Razor said.
The Regional Schools Program (RSP) has about 25 to 30 staff members serving 40 to 50 students. There are multiple counselors, including a crisis counselor, as well as a school resource officer.
“What’s valuable there is that they’re able to do some very specialized services that districts can’t do on their own,” Razor said. “It’s leveraging your resources. Small districts can’t always afford counselors and large districts have problems dealing with some students with intensive needs.”
Razor said there is little turnover among the staff. For example, new principal Stephanie Turner has been in the building for 10 years, most recently serving as assistant principal. There is also a high level of dedication by the staff to the students they serve.
“They’re dedicated to the students, and they try to do some things beyond their jobs, outreach to build relationships with families that’s so critical,” Razor said.
The RSP runs its own family resource center, the Scorpion Center, which provides items such as clothing, food, school supplies and personal care items to meet the basic needs of students and their families. It is one of three programs within the RSP. The Challenge Program specializes in working with students who have moderate and severe disabilities, while the Phoenix Program provides educational opportunities to students who have exhibited academic, social or behavioral barriers to learning in a traditional classroom and school setting.
Students receive diplomas from their home schools, but they also are spotlighted in a separate ceremony held by the RSP and attended by a representative from every school it serves.
“It’s pretty moving. The gym is full of families, and there are a lot of tears,” Razor said. “Students have that opportunity to be celebrated where they might not otherwise.”
MORE INFO …
Sherri Clusky firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeremy Kidd email@example.com
Lucinda Mills firstname.lastname@example.org
Amy Razor email@example.com