Making good: For teens who want to shift to a positive direction, this school helps
by Laura Johnson
Oct 25, 2012 | 7645 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Zach Chandler listens to his math teacher, Tim Beard, at the Calhoun County Alternative School in Jacksonville. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
Zach Chandler listens to his math teacher, Tim Beard, at the Calhoun County Alternative School in Jacksonville. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
JACKSONVILLE — Zach Chandler has transformed himself into a different kind of student at Calhoun County’s alternative school, from one who made Cs and Ds into an A-and-B scholar.

School leaders have a similar transformation in mind for the alternative school program itself, potentially helping many more kids in circumstances different from Chandler’s.

A polite 17-year-old from Alexandria, Chandler landed in the program after some serious mistakes at his old school, a common enough route to the spartan alternative school campus in Jacksonville.

Until now, the alternative school has been open only to students who have specific academic needs and to those being disciplined, but that could soon change.

Today at a Calhoun County School Board meeting Alternative School Principal Robin Kines is expected to present a plan that would open the program up to students who are at risk of dropping out.

“I hope to see the P.A.S.S., the Positive Approach to Student Success program, open up avenues for students who need it,” Kines said. “Some students are just not cut out for traditional school.”

Kines and Calhoun County Schools Superintendent Joe Dyar said students combating low self-esteem, social pressure or personal problems that might interfere with academic performance are ideal candidates for the program. Though the program is designed to give at-risk students another option on the path to graduation, it won’t be for every student having a hard time in high school.

“We need to make sure the people we accept into the program are the correct candidates,” Kines said.

Students must be recommended for the program to participate. And that’s just the first step in the approval process to take part.

Kines said students must also complete an application, participate in an interview and sign a contract. If a student is accepted into the program, teachers will draft an education plan to help him complete his coursework and graduate, she added.

The program was developed in response to a request from a local high school principal who was trying to find help for a student two years behind his peers and at risk of dropping out, Dyar said. The superintendent approached other principals and administrators with the problem. They began developing the alternative graduation plan, which will be implemented by January, for at-risk students, he said.

A student who has fallen years behind would be an ideal candidate for the program, the administrators said. So too would a young mother or a student who is being bullied and might leave school to escape social pressure.

Morgan Gravitt came to the school from the Pleasant Valley community recently after she ran away from home. The 17-year-old, a high school senior, said the alternative school is helping her get back on her feet.

By next year she wants to be ready to attend college so she can later pursue a career in law enforcement.

“I knew there was going to be a lot of drama going on at my regular school, plus there were going to be too many distractions so I just decided to come here,” Gravitt said. “You’re not judged here … even the teachers won’t judge you.”

The program’s facility on the campus of the Calhoun County Career Technical Center was renovated last year. Its six classrooms and two offices offer a well-ordered environment that contrasts somewhat with the typical high school campus.

Amid white walls and new tile, students abide by more rules than their peers at the county’s high schools. Shirts must be tucked in and held tight by belts. Books must be carried in plastic crates. Any and all personal items — cell phones, wallets, keys — must be surrendered at the start of the school day.

Unlike traditional high school classrooms, those at the alternative school are sparsely decorated — only a few posters and inspirational phrases hang on the walls.

Students work quietly in front of computer screens set up in tiny cubicles, in small group settings or in small classes.

The program expansion won’t cost the system any money because the alternative school is adequately staffed, Dyar said. The school boasts a teacher for every core subject, a guidance counselor and a physical education teacher.

Twenty students in different grades are enrolled there, but with the current staff the alternative school could serve up to 100 students, Dyar said. The superintendent added that the teacher-to-student ratio is very small at the school.

“It’s a very personal experience,” Dyar said. “Why not help them … why not try to find a way to get somebody out so they can be productive citizens?”

For Chandler, the Alexandria 17-year-old, the environment is just right, he said. He was getting by at his old school, but barely.

“I passed, but by the skin of my teeth,” Chandler said. “It just comes easier to me up here.”

If he stays on track, he should return to Alexandria High next year, something he’s looking forward to despite the good experience he’s having at the alternative school. If all goes well then, he’ll graduate at the same time as his peers in the spring of 2014.

Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.

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