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Staff, students at alternative school face challenges

March 26, 2001

Staff, students at alternative school face challenges



By TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Mark Keefer shouts over the rumblings of a tin roof as wind whips against the half of a trailer that serves as his classroom.

continued

He tells his science class to ignore the noise and then continues with his lesson about battery cells.

The trailer, which is wide enough for three rows of students, is part of the Washington County Public Schools' Alternative Learning Center on the South Hagerstown High School campus.

The main building consists of one short hallway, a main office, a few classrooms and a small gym in the basement.

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And while the cramped space might be a hindrance, the school's 18-member staff has other challenges. Not only must they teach their 56 sixth-through-ninth-grade students the Washington County curriculum standards, but they must also provide therapeutic and behavioral services to students who have problems performing successfully at their home schools.

The task can be difficult, since each student comes with different needs, said Lynne Gober, the school's assistant principal.

She said staff don't know what kind of behavioral problems each day might bring, but they must be prepared for anything.

"We still have to meet the same standards, but we have the challenge of curbing their behavioral problems and their social problems," Gober said. "Sometimes it's a challenge just to get the kids to school. Every day is different."

Gober said incentives are an important part of keeping the students interested. The other part is providing love and support. She said sometimes the students' home lives are so troubled that coming to school might be the only place they'll eat for the day or receive encouragement.

"This may be the only place they feel loved," Gober said. "We are sometimes the only comfort that they find in their days, in their week, in their lives."

Jan Hightower, the school's life-skills counselor, said many of the students have emotional problems and need supportive environments. Everyone from the teachers and instructional assistants to the secretaries plays an important role.

"It feels sometimes like all the cards are stacked against these kids," Hightower said. "A lot of times they experience things that kids should not have to experience."

Teachers often help the students by being firm but relentless in their mission to make them confident and successful.

Social studies teacher Alfred Fiedler is animated in his instruction, using a plunger as a pointer and other props in his classroom to keep the students motivated.

"He's an entertainer," Gober said. "He's just great with the kids."

She said often it is tactics like Fiedler's that garner respect from the students.

"We have to earn their respect," Gober said. "Many of them lack that with adults. They don't trust them, therefore, they don't respect them."

Gober said it can take time before students warm up to the staff members, but once they do, they tend to like their stay at the school.

She said students often arrive at the school scared or angry about being separated from their friends.

"Some are nervous because of what they heard about this place, and some could be angry because they were sent here," Gober said. "But many of them just accept the fact that they're here.

"One of the first things we say to them is that our goal is not for them to stay here their entire educational career. We want to get them back to their home school, but they have to earn the right to return."

To return to their home schools, students much earn five levels of responsibilities. The levels consist of:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Being cooperative

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Demonstrating character

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Having a passing grade in each subject

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Having no unexcused absences or tardiness

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Completing all homework assignments

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Receiving no suspensions

It can take anywhere from a semester to a year or longer to attain all five levels.

Gober said the biggest reward for staff is to see a student return to his or her home school and do well.

"The reward is when a kid returns to his home school, and he remains successful," she said.

Vincent Diggs, 13, has earned all five levels and has mixed feelings about returning to Springfield Middle School.

"I wanted to get out of my regular school," said Vincent, who had been at the Alternative Learning Center since the beginning of the school year.

Erni Stitely, a ninth-grade transfer from Frederick County, said he misses his friends, but he likes the smaller classes at the alternative school.

"I like it," Erni said. "There's less people in the classes, and it's easier to learn. I thought it was going to be hard, because it's an alternative school. I thought the teachers were going to be stricter."

Eighth-grader Luke Mason said he likes the alternative school more than his home school, Clear Spring Middle. He also likes being back with his friends.

"I like this school better than my school because it has more incentives," Luke, 13, said. "It's a good school. It's fun. I wasn't sure what kind of school I'd be in. I thought it would be a reform school."

Gober said the staff has a tough-love relationship with its students, but they know they'll also be supported and encouraged to do well.

"For so many of these kids they've heard nothing but negatives about them," she said. "It's always, 'You're not going to be anything.' Many times they don't hear the positive things.

"We give them the opportunity. This is the land of opportunity. They deserve to have a fresh start."

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