May 22, 2011

Redemption, Part 1

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Most kids who attend alternative schools have heartbreaking stories. Those stories impact them in ways that are painful to watch. They've been beaten down by their environment, their poverty, their circumstance...but almost all of them keep a glimmer of hope. It is my job to find that glimmer and grow it--the way you start a fire with a spark and fan it into a flame.

We struggle together to ignite the spark. Some fires get bigger than others. Some kids want to learn more than others. Some kids have never felt like they belong in a classroom and we work to make them feel safe and comfortable before we can even think about helping them learn. It is a very long, hard journey for some.

That is why I love to celebrate the achievement of those who take the journey all the way through to the end by GRADUATING!

I teach in a one-room alternative high school program. We started out the year with 26 students and are ending with 13 graduates! To honor them, I am sharing their stories here. My hope is that the next time you read a story about "failing" schools, low standardized test scores, and the sorry state of education you will remember these stories. My students did not succeed in a traditional school setting, do not do well on standardized tests, and may not go on to become CEOs or leaders in business. But they do have qualities that will make them successful in life: they are survivors, they are hard-workers, and they never give up.

Nichole came to the program as a junior. To say that she had "an attitude" would be a vast understatement! Raised by a single mom who relieves her stress by drinking, Nichole joined the cycle of work/drink and partied hard from an early age--it was normal in her family. In addition to the drinking, though, Nichole also learned from her mom that having a job was important. Soon after enrolling in the alternative program, she got a job at a local nursing home. She liked the independence she got from working at the nursing home, so she did well at her job. Her new attitude carried over to school. She was able to graduate a semester ahead of her class and will go on to get her CNA training through the nursing home.

Caitlin came to the program as a sophomore. She was raised by a single mom who spent all of her time in the town bar--either waitressing or hanging out. Caitlin's dad has been in and out of prison her whole life and the family has struggled to keep a roof over their heads. As a junior, Caitlin's dad had a brief stint out of prison--long enough to get her mom pregnant. Senior year (a year when most girls are thinking about prom and having fun) Caitlin spent either babysitting so that her mom could work, or looking for a job so that she could help pay for the new baby. Caitlin is extremely intelligent and she worked very hard in school. She, too, graduated a semester early! Her dream is to go to college to study music and become a choir director. She plans to put her dream on hold so that she can continue to help her mom raise her baby sister.

Samantha joined us as a junior, just after testifying in court at her stepfather's trial for sexually abusing her. Her world was very unstable. Her mom had a lot of anger and grief, both for the pain of her daughter and for the loss of her marriage. Mom began trying to drink away the pain. Samantha needed some stability and found a boyfriend who was willing to commit to a long-term relationship. Her boyfriend was, at the time, in the National Guard and counting the days until he was sent to Afghanistan. They got engaged. When things at home got to be too much for Sam, she knew she had to get out of the house or she'd never graduate. She got a job and moved in with her future in-laws. Her boyfriend shipped out. She worked, came to school, and put one foot in front of the other each day to survive. When her boyfriend came home on leave, they got married. This gave her more inspiration to finish school....which she did! Sam patiently awaits the safe return of her husband while she continues to work as an assistant manager at a pizza place and lives with his parents.

Brandon always did well in a traditional school and his counselors were suspicious that he was dabbling in illegal substances when his grades started to fall. He failed some classes and was no longer on track to graduate with his class when they referred him to our alternative program. It turns out, though, that Brandon's main difficulty at school was homework completion. After turning 18, he needed to take a full-time job to support himself. Attending school all day and working 4:00 - 1:00 every night doesn't leave much time for homework (or anything else!) He enrolled in our program (where we have no homework) with the goal of catching up and graduating with his class. Due to our mastery-based system and our acceptance of work hours for elective credit, he was able to meet his goal. Brandon is walking across the stage with his class later today!

Matt was born to a woman who was addicted to crack. As a baby, he was immediately placed in foster care with his older brother. They stayed in the foster care system for two years until they were finally adopted. When Matt became a teenager, though, he was quite a bit bigger than his adopted parents. He had a lot of emotional problems and refused treatment. His anger led him to cause his adoptive parents more stress than they could handle, and they took legal action to remove him from their house. He was put back into the foster care system. His new foster parents enrolled him in our alternative program. Many people hold negative opinions about Matt's foster family and their motivation for taking him in; but despite those opinions, they gave Matt what he needed: structure, rules, routines. They took him to counselors and helped him accept the fact that he needed some medication. They helped him get a job at the animal shelter caring for strays (animals with no known parentage and no home--kind of like Matt himself.) When Matt turned 17, they legally adopted him and made a commitment to stay with him for life. They communicated with me regularly to make sure that the expectations in place at home were the same as the expectations in place at school. I am happy to say that Matt is now a high school graduate!

More stories of recovery, redemption and success to come....


  1. Jen, these are really heartrending stories. You are making a difference in these kids' lives. I'm sure there are many of us who can relate to one or more of these youths' circumstances at home. There's a fine-line between success and failure, a matter of nudge one way or the other. Thank you for being that "nudge."

  2. Oh, Jen - Now I'm in tears. Thanks for sharing these important, inspirational stories!

  3. Ezzy, thank you for reading their stories. It means a lot to have their success recognized and validated by others. I appreciate your kind words to me, too.

    Jenni--Thank you for visiting. I thank you for the work you do to help students in similar situations across the country!


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