How an Alternative School Helped One Student Find His Way From...

column | Student Success

How an Alternative School Helped One Student Find His Way From Suspension to Graduation

By Farhat Ahmad (Columnist)     Feb 27, 2019

How an Alternative School Helped One Student Find His Way From Suspension to Graduation

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

“When I come to school I got hella things on my mind. Sometimes I don’t even sleep at night. I go hungry on purpose, cause I lose my appetite. I get to school and make myself angry. I was raised to live a lie. My older brother raised me, but he was doing drugs. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to talk it out. I hit myself. I may hit my best friend. It’s very confusing. Gang violence, drug violence, drug dealing. When my parents would fight, I wouldn’t eat. I started stealing and selling drugs. I felt none of them cared about me. Then I OD’d and was on the verge of death and they finally started caring. Then I started trying to OD more to get them to keep caring.”

That's Ray, an 11th grade student at Marietta Alternative Placement (MAPs), an alternative program for students in Marietta City Schools in Atlanta. The student population at MAPs is mostly comprised of learners who have been placed on long-term suspension and are banned from their home schools, usually (though not always) pending some type of criminal charge. The program is designed to meet students where they are, help them grow academically, emotionally and socially, but most of all, it exists to support them in overcoming often significant out-of-school challenges and building their way out of complicated circumstances.

MAPs wasn’t always designed this way. The program was previously run through a third-party company unsuccessfully for several years. I have been working in alternative education for my entire career, and in my experience, alternative education programs too often become a dumping ground. Districts seem to be more interested in sequestering students rather than helping them grow. According to the superintendent, Grant Rivera, that’s what had happened to MAPs. It had become a place to “send kids.” It looked like a computer lab with a babysitter.

A Rocky Start

Ray came to the MAPs program from Texas in September 2018. He had no transcript—only his class schedule from his prior school, which included advanced placement (AP) classes. He was assigned to MAPs because he transferred while on long-term suspension, and in line with common practice, my district upheld his suspension. From his records, I knew he had a history of drug abuse and drug-related crimes, but most of the information I had was non-specific. He was very well-spoken and his schedule appeared to include challenging academic classes—something wasn’t adding up. Once we got to talking and he started opening up, I knew he was in trouble.

“Everyone in Texas treated me like a criminal, but I was a straight-A student. I was feeling stupid depressed. I OD’d on some prescription medications during state testing. I was throwing up in the trash can and then I passed out. The teacher just thought I fell asleep. The whole day I couldn’t walk straight. My friend had to help me get to class. No one said a word to me. No teacher asked if I was OK. I was pale, stumbling, sweaty and my lips were hella red because I was throwing up blood.” —Ray

I said we’d get his transcripts from Texas and see if we could help him get the high school credits he had already earned so he wouldn’t be set back any further. Noticing the AP classes on his current schedule, I suggested that if he passed his diagnostic exams, he would have the freedom to accelerate through the curriculum at his own pace on his own schedule.I had just joined MAPs a few months earlier, and I didn’t know what to say to Ray. But I knew I needed to do right by this kid. No one else had.

Ray rolled his eyes; he didn’t believe me. He said I’d try to get his transcripts, get blocked by his old school and then give up. Immediately, I thought of Coach Flowers. If anyone could help Ray, it was him.

Flowers, who had taught AP classes for over a decade and now worked alongside me at MAPs, had a gift. He knew how to find the right balance of challenge and support, and how to help students believe they could rise to a challenge they were faced with. There was no one I trusted more to approach this work with humanity and give these kids the respect they deserved and needed to succeed. I spoke with Flowers about working with our new student, Ray.

Flowers’ first move was to push as hard as he could for those transcripts. In his most earnest voice, laden with a Southern accent, Flowers made some difficult phone calls. A few faxes and emails later, we had the entirety of Ray’s transcripts from Texas, which was a remarkable feat for a mid-semester out-of-state transfer student. His grades were impressive. He had taken quite a few AP classes and had received A’s and B’s.

Confident that Ray could pass the state test, I asked if he was up for taking it in the next few weeks. I explained that we would collaborate to develop some meaningful, project-based assignments so he could complete his coursework in a relatively short amount of time, and that if he finished his coursework and passed the state test, he could finish two semesters of literature in three weeks. With a stunned look on his face, Ray said he was in.

For the next few weeks, we worked together toward this goal, and in November he passed his 11th grade state ELA End of Course test with an 82 percent. For kids who have fallen through the cracks and are marginalized and ignored, busywork doesn’t hold any meaning. However, goals with tangible rewards like this matter a lot. For Ray, moving forward was everything.

The Road to Graduation

Once he experienced a bit of success, he took charge in a bigger way. He asked for access to all of the classes he needed to complete to graduate and began moving through them more independently. I talk to him, encourage him and in some cases, provide choices that he may not have considered. Generally, though, I try to stay away from the cliched “make good choices” speech. Ray has the most success when we work together, not when he is being told what to do.

When he first came to MAPs five months ago, Ray was defeated by life and didn’t trust anyone. Now, he has completed the coursework and tests for his junior and senior years in just a few months. He has finished all of his credits and we’re currently processing his paperwork so he can graduate in March.

The academic support has been critical, but it wasn’t the only thing that helped Ray move forward. With support from our social worker, we got him a bus pass, which immediately improved his attendance. We recognized that we needed to support Ray’s mental health, too. Since he arrived, we have had a few different counselors speak with him, including a drug and alcohol counselor, but none of them really stuck. He either lost interest, or wanted to spend his time getting his work done so he could graduate. We know counseling is critical for Ray, so we’re still working on finding the right match for him.

Though Ray is back on track academically, he still has a lot of problems. His relationship with family and his drug addiction have presented huge obstacles for him. From his perspective, his parents have rejected him. Neither of them wants to take responsibility for his upbringing because of his past drug use. Ray says his mother told him he couldn’t live with her, and when he spends time with his father, he’s constantly told that he is “never going to amount to anything” and that he has “proven himself a failure.” Ray is trying desperately to leave his past as an addict behind him and live his life in the present as an independent young man. But Ray was never taught how to be independent.

We set up a meeting with a college and career coach, and I’m arranging a community volunteer to come in to talk to him about what his post-graduation plans are, but there are limitations to what we can do since we don’t have much time left together. For now, he plans to work in an IT mobile business with his brother.

In my experience, stories like Ray’s, don’t have a guaranteed feel-good ending like that movie, “The Blind Side.” I’d like to think that maybe the love he got here was enough, but I’m not sure if that’s true.

I hope the way our staff rallied together to help Ray earn his high school diploma was enough to light a spark to get him to take care of himself. I hope he works things out with his family so he has a place to live for a few years until he gets established on his own.

One good sign is that Ray is feeling more optimistic about his next steps.

It’s impossible to give Ray all the opportunities he didn’t have growing up, but we try really hard to help him move forward. Programs like MAPs have an important place in the school system. At-risk students deserve more than being farmed out to a tech lab monitored by babysitters. They need someone like Flowers, who will fight and make uncomfortable phone calls and say, “Hey, kid, you are worth something and we are going to take care of you.”

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