I was immediately taken by the charm of this old school building -- with its high ceilings, large classrooms and wide hallway -- which has been renovated to accommodate high school students who don’t fit into a traditional learning environment. The alternative program takes place on the second floor of this building. The goal of the program was expressed simply by John Salovardos, head of pupil personnel services for Gardner: to make sure each student in the program gets a high school degree.
The program is very new -- it just opened this past January thanks to a $430K stimulus award -- but I could see evidence of its impact on some of the nine students who are currently enrolled. The current plan is for the program to expand to 20 kids.
The one word I would use to describe the students -- all of whom dropped out of high school, were expelled or were at risk of either -- and the teachers I met would be upbeat. Paul Sebring, the program’s coordinator and a teacher, (who is a dead ringer for Mark Twain by the way) jokes easily with the kids while he gently encourages them in their work. Two other teachers go from student to student, helping them understand and navigate their assignments.
“We took the Gardner high school model but we have a separate vision,” John told me. “We present a different environment for learning for these kids and we understand their best way to learn and we will have them come out with a diploma.”
The goal, John said, is to regionalize the program which would not only ensure the financial sustainability of the school but would also help decrease the drop out rate throughout the region.
And this is something that is sorely needed. The kids in this program are well aware that without a high school degree their chances of getting where they want to go are not great. Amanda, a tenth grader, wants to be a cosmetologist and she told me she knows she has to finish high school to get into a program. Same with Marcel who told me he’s thinking about going into music production. “I already do it and I’m good at it,” he told me proudly. Many of these kids have jobs and the program accommodates their working schedules.
Nathan told me that he got expelled from high school two months ago. He is supposed to be a junior but he was falling more and more behind. I asked him why he decided to come to this program. “I couldn’t go back to my high school,” he told me. “I heard this was different.”
The students are all there of their own volition and I give them a lot of credit for sticking with it. They need to want to do this. John said he wants the kids to “buy into” the program. “They can’t just show up to take up space,” he told me. “They need to be motivated.”
He said one student was suspended from the program when he got into trouble with the law. The student is in the process of sorting through his legal issues but he wants to get back into the program. He got all F’s in high school but he was getting As and Bs in the program.
“He told me, ‘when I go here I’m actually making it’,” John told me. “He could see the program was working for him.”
This is a school that is meeting a very specific need in the community. Combined with the commitment of the students, it’s a great investment in the future.