The Marshfield Alternative High School is providing new opportunities for its students thanks to its new location this fall inside the Marshfield YMCA Youth Center.
The move opens up a whole new community for students that didn’t exist before. “The big thing here is just the connections students are able to make, with having so many youth programs in one building,” said Tamie Franks, instructor.
Previously located inside the Chestnut Center for the Arts, the alternative school shares its space in Jeremy’s KidZone with other youth-centered organizations like Youth Net and the 4K program. Students can sign up to be mentors for the after-school program and spend time with the 4K children if they wish.
“Some of our kids really like little kids, and we had no way to capitalize on that without leaving the [Chestnut Center],” said David Roeglin, administrator. “A lot of times little kids bring out the best in everybody, soften the hardest heart. I think that’s a huge advantage.”
Older YMCA visitors have also embraced the arrival of the alternative school and lent their time and support. “I thought they would be hesitant having teenagers using their space, but they’ve been really helpful to the students,” Franks said. “They’re always sitting there in the morning, showing them how to use equipment.”
YMCA staff have also been very welcoming of the arrivals. Thanks to a generous gift of free memberships, students are able to use exercise equipment, shower facilities, and hang-out spaces, access which has worked wonders for some.
These connections are key to the students’ success at the alternative high school, including those with each other.
“They build a community, and they take some ownership for making the community good,” Roeglin said. “You’ll see that all the time, kids trying to to support one another. If I said everybody got along great, that wouldn’t be true. But for the most part, the community solves a lot of problems.”
Many come out of their shell and thrive in their new environment. “You see them when they start, they’re afraid to talk to anybody or say anything to anybody, and after they’ve blended in they become different people – much more outspoken and communicative, confident. They’ve developed leadership,” he said.
“I so look forward to the future,” said Franks. “I think those connections are just going to grow.”
The move to the Youth Center means new resources which open up a world of teaching opportunities.
The alternative school is now able to hook up to the school district’s internet and move to a digital curriculum which complements its new site. A Smart TV gives students the opportunity to watch and analyze national news two days a week. The addition of a sink and kitchen area allows staff to better serve lunch and teach cooking skills – the possibilities are endless.
“We’re just learning what we can do,” noted Franks.
Full of warm colors and natural light, the new interior has formed an environment well-suited for learning. A table area where students complete their work is separated from a lounge of comfortable furniture by movable dividers. A smaller room functions as a lunchroom and night school classroom.
While MAHS had a good partnership with the Chestnut Center, the old building posed several disadvantages as a place of learning. Unreliable internet made it difficult to teach the day’s lessons in a time when iPads play a much bigger role in classrooms. Physical Education was restricted to a few pieces of exercise equipment and little outdoor space, and the building wasn’t handicap accessible.
Even so, it was a place where many students found success. “Lots of them are out in the community doing stuff. You run into kids all the time,” noted Roeglin. “Now they’re contributing members.”
Two groups of about fifteen students each attend school from 8-11 or 12-3 p.m. A handful enroll in night school. The rest of the time, students are either taking classes at the regular high school or working. The YMCA itself provides extra employment opportunities.
Jobs are highly encouraged and at least three-quarters of students are employed, while others work on developing job skills. Instructors will help students fill out job applications and even drive them to interviews using the school van.
To develop time management and accountability in students, the alternative school requires that students punch in and leave their cell phones at the front desk. If they are even a minute late, an hour must be made up.
“If they have one foot in the workforce, quite often our employers will encourage them to finish up their diploma because they know how important it is,” said Roeglin. “Employers will work with us if students are getting behind.”
SAME GOAL, A DIFFERENT PATH
To be eligible to attend the Marshfield Alternative High School, students must first be interviewed about their goals and motivated to finish their schooling. Many come in their junior or senior year and so are already looking toward the future.
“If the program we have at the regular high school isn’t working for them, they can explore this as an alternative,” said Roeglin. “If they want to work hard and be part of our community, then they have a chance to get their diploma.”
The alternative school can be the right option for those who struggle with mental health, chronic health problems, addiction, and pregnancy. Some students may just struggle academically and need a more individualized approach, a curriculum that won’t overwhelm them. Others may be in a situation where they need to work full-time to support themselves.
“The 1,200-student public high school is a rough environment for a lot of kids, for a lot of reasons: anxiety, the sheer trying to manage 6 or 7 classes throughout the day, if they have problems with attention span or focus, or they need a lot more academic support than what the traditional high school can provide them,” said Roeglin.
“Some kids will adjust and figure it out, and use the supports we have over there to be successful. In other kids, it just get away from them. They can’t keep up the pace, they get behind. They get discouraged, and they start to realize that they have two years left of credits and only one year left of high school.”
Some students come from other districts and live with friends or relatives in order to try a different program and catch up on credits. Progress is assessed by credits, rather than by grade.
“It’s just a different way to achieve your goal. Some of the things we do here would be good for any student: Connecting, doing community work,” said Franks.
Instructors are on-hand to help students with their work and keep them on track. Once a concept is learned, they can move right along to the next lesson. Students still complete the same core classes but with different electives, and may attend the regular high school for courses like art, band or technical education which are not offered at the alternative school.
One-on-one help is essential to help students succeed. Instructors are able to provide support to keep students on task and moving along toward their goals. Thanks to those close relationships, staff are also able to step in if they notice a student is struggling or having a bad day, something not as possible in a typical academic setting. To provide additional support, a social worker and psychologist touch base once a week and meet with students.
“Our staff really concentrates on getting to know kids and make connections with them. They’re all veteran teachers who have diverse knowledge bases to help kids in a lot of different subjects,” said Roeglin. “They don’t want to just teach and then go home. They want to teach kids and make connections, and help kids get on track and get their diploma.”
Many speakers are invited to speak on topics like healthy relationships, filing taxes, and other life skills. Additionally, students will take field trips to a local art gallery or the School Forest. They are also able to participate in any activity at the high school, such as athletics, school dances, and clubs. Involvement is encouraged where possible.
Students also volunteer for the community, such as preparing food for United Way’s Nutrition on Weekends program, bringing lunch to Head Start, or signing up to be a mentor at Youth Net.
Given that students are already motivated to succeed, the graduation rate is high as long as they maintain a good attendance. “We have a lot of students who might not finish on time, but they finish,” said Franks.
“And that’s our ultimate goal.”