Graduate says Alternative School picked him up after several falls

January 17, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • Peggy Keefer rolls new chairs Thursday through the new Antietam Academy. The purchasing department employee has worked for 40 years for Washington County Public Schools.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — If it hadn’t been for the new Alternative School in 1977, Joe McPherson said he probably would have ended up in “juvenile hall” until he was 18, or worse.

“I was pretty wild,” McPherson said.

Instead, McPherson became one of the first students to attend the school that was aimed at catching potential dropouts and eventually getting them back into their home schools.

McPherson, who had been expelled from South Hagerstown High, said he found most of the teachers at the Alternative School to be compassionate.

“You stumble, fall and they’d be there to pick you up. They never condemned you. They just kept believing in you,” said McPherson, 48, of Hagerstown.

In 1977, the Alternative School was in the North Street Community Center.

On Wednesday, the doors to a new Antietam Academy will open.

The new building marks the first time the school system has constructed a school specifically for students in what has at times been called the alternative school program.

Antietam Academy serves students whose behavior is disturbing to teachers and fellow students and/or who have a high level of attention deficit disorder or distractibility, and/or who have pronounced academic deficits, school system officials have said. The academy also will house the Evening High School program and a summer school.

The alternative program has moved several times since its inception in 1977.

McPherson said he spent his junior year at the North Street site, but for his senior year, the Alternative School was at Broadway School.

Interviewed by The Morning Herald in 1977, McPherson said he was expelled from South High for cussing and skipping school. McPherson said Sunday he also was suspended for two weeks from the Alternative School after he got into a fight with a teacher. But the program didn’t give up on him.

In 1977, the 15-year-old acknowledged he needed to change his attitude and expressed doubts about whether he would make it to graduation.

But McPherson made it back to South High, graduating from his home school, he said. He got a job with an awning company, then worked in construction for more than 20 years, he said. He’s now on partial disability after falling off scaffolding five years ago, he said.

Looking back on his youth, McPherson said it’s no wonder he had so many troubles with school.

“At the time, I didn’t realize it, but I practically raised myself since I was 12 years old,” he said.

McPherson said he lacked role models and rebelled against everyone. He started smoking marijuana at age 13, drank beer and acted out, he said.

Although his grades were fine, he said he had behavior problems.

“It could have been real easy for me to be thrown to the side,” McPherson said.

Instead, he found himself at the Alternative School with teachers Stephen Grove and Diane Stahl.

Grove became a father figure and Stahl was like a big sister, McPherson said.

Grove, a retired teacher who lives in Williamsport, said he remembers McPherson as being a nice young man.

Grove said the Alternative School was a program worth starting in 1977. He said providing a new school for at-risk students will help their self-esteem.

McPherson said some of the benefits of attending the Alternative School were simple things, like being able to sit wherever you wanted rather than in the same seat every day.

“I didn’t really want to give up, quit. It would have been real easy for me at the time ’cause I was on my own,” McPherson said.

It just took someone believing in him, he said.

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