Revive & Conquer: New Alternative School Is Education Revival

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In the dictionary, the definition of a revival is a reawakening or a restoration, whether it be mental, physical or spiritual. In Raymond, Revive is the same thing, a reawakening of educational goals and a restoration of self worth.

This past year, the building that once housed young eager students from the Panhandle School District was transformed into the Regional Office of Education #3's  Revive Alternative High School and it's sister school, the Phoenix Safe School for junior high students. While the students are older than the kindergartners who once learned their ABCs in that building, the eagerness to learn is the same, even if it was lost for a while.

Revive follows the same path as the ROE #3's other two alternative schools, with a goal of helping students in Montgomery, Christian, Bond, Fayette and Effingham counties who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out.

That is the commonality between the students, but why they are in this situation runs the gamut. Whether it be truancy or teen pregnancy, low achievement or discipline problems, poor peer relations or mental and physical health issues, Revive is there to help find a way to get these students back on the track to graduation. The goal isn't just to build better students, it's to build better citizens.

"Thirty-five or 40 years ago, you could walk out of high school and get a job in Coffeen at the mine and make more than your parents did," said ROE #3 Regional Superintendent of Schools Julie Wollerman. "And you can't do that now. I know from working with these types of kids for years, we lose them. But if we can build a place for them where they can build those relationships, use the skills they have, and learn more, they can get those high school diplomas and move on to the next step. Which is what we all want. We want our kids to graduate and become tax paying citizens. My goal is for one of them to buy a house and live next to you and everyone say, 'That's awesome. They're good neighbors.' These are good kids who needed something different."

Based on the results from the other two alternative schools run by the ROE #3, the program is working. Aspire Alternative High School in Effingham has served 634 kids between 2004 and 2019, with 86 percent earning high school credit. New Approach in Vandalia has an even larger sample size, with 1,129 students since it opened in 1993-94, more than 80 percent of which earned high school credits.

It's not foolproof. New Approach has had 134 students drop out or withdraw for whatever reason (poor fit, moving, etc.) and 69 students be removed. Aspire has had 34 withdraw or drop out, with 26 removed.

But those numbers pale in comparison to the success stories. The Vandalia school has had 316 graduates and 78 students who returned to their home high school. Effingham has had similar success, with 125 graduates and 23 returning to their home school.

"My teaching staff at all three sites are the best in the state. That's what it takes to teach these kids. You can't be mediocre and pull this off, because those kids will see right through you," Wollerman said. "We have the model, we know what works, but then Kendal can put his twist on it to make it work for these kids."

"Kendal" is former Lincolnwood High School principal Kendal Elvidge, who is the principal and one-third of the teaching staff at Revive. First-year teachers Austin Ives and Dalton Barnes make up the other two-thirds, with Regular Attendance Program (RAP) Attendance Specialist Kate Wagahoff also working with students.

Elvidge says that the small class sizes (they have 13 high school students and two junior high students right now, but can go up to 30 and 15 at each level) and flexibility in lesson plans allow teachers to obtain a deeper knowledge of their students and what might be going on behind the scenes that is affecting their educational experience.

"Every kid here has a story and here, their story gets heard. But not only does their story get heard, but the teachers and staff gets their story heard too. We get to know each other and connect with each other on a different level," said Elvidge, who left his alma mater across the parking lot to come to Revive. "It's a different environment in regards to the connection you have with the people around you. It's deeper and stronger."

That connection starts every day with circle time at 8:30 a.m., a time where all 15 students and three teachers come together to discuss what is going on in their lives. 

Each day of the week has a different theme. Mondays are for positives, something you're proud of or happy about from the weekend. 

Tuesdays is Tuesday Blues Day, which gives students and teachers the opportunity to talk about a concern, whether it be personal or about school.

Wednesday's conversation centers around current events and how they affect the group personally. Thursday focuses on goals, which each student sets, whether it be regarding credit recovery or a personal aspect.

Fridays are for reflection, with the students looking at how the week went, focusing on what they are proud of or what they need to work on for the week to come.

"It's amazing to hear what some of these kids have to say and what they'll open up about. It's good to get to know them on a personal level," said Elvidge. "The good thing is that we have an excellent staff who is not afraid to share. They're all great about sharing a concern or sharing something they are working on. As a group, we sit around and talk about them. So I think the kids seeing that we have our own weaknesses helps create a greater bond."

That bond is evident in talking with the students, who mention all three teachers when discussing the school. Both Barnes and Ives have bought into the philosophy of the school as well, which was a must if Revive was going to be successful.

"I've told Kendal this before, this is the perfect place to teach at," Barnes said. "When you get into teaching, you want to guide kids. You want to guide them to success. Here, we're on ground zero and we have that ability to change these kids' lives. Why would you not want to do that when it seems like everywhere else that's lost."

Barnes said that the ability to connect with the students and teach lessons that have real-life implications has been key.

"My mother-in-law has been teaching in Carlinville for 30-plus years and I tell her about some of the stuff we do and she thinks it's amazing," he explained. "She doesn't have time for that. Being here, we've had the opportunity to focus on the stuff that matters, which is building these kids up to be successful."

The small class size allows teachers to give one-on-one attention to students and more time to explain something that the student doesn't understand. The teachers are also able to cater their lesson plans to the students' needs, whether it be teaching U.S. History in reverse order, starting with the present and working backwards, or presenting match in more of a consumer way, using credit cards and checking accounts as examples.

"That's my favorite thing about this place, as far as classroom setting wise. I don't feel the pressure to drive material down their throat," Barnes said. "We were talking about the Guyger case about the off-duty cop that murdered the young man in Dallas. I heard about it on the radio, brought it up and they were so into it. I just shut down the rest of the unit I had planned and we just ran with it. I don't know how many times we've talked about it at lunch or after class since then."

The less stringent schedule also allows teachers to address outside items that may be affecting the students, something that would be a luxury for most public high school teachers.

"People have bad days. But in the traditional setting, you're not allowed to have bad days," Barnes said, "because you have to keep hitting those deadlines."

Ives echoes his co-worker's statements and says that it makes a difference with the students.

"It really goes a long way in that both my co-workers have the mind-set that if a student is misbehaving, it doesn't come from 'Oh, I just want to make Mr. Barnes mad today,'" Ives said. "It comes from an outside influence they're having. Coming from that mind-set alone makes a world of difference."

Wollerman agrees as well, saying that if there was a teacher for every 15 kids in public schools, there would be no need for alternative schools. She added that other factors have also handcuffed teachers.

"If we didn't have to worry so much about testing and every mandate, we could focus on letting teachers build that rapport with students, and that's what you need for any relationship to grow and expand," Wollerman said.

Even with the flexibility, students are still held to the same standards of the students in the public schools. They are held to the same state requirements as traditional schools and have to meet those regulations and standards before they move on.

Those who do meet those standards could eventually receive a diploma from their home high school, even if they complete their work at Revive.

"It's in our contract that they have to earn credit at their home high school at some point. Usually it's when they are freshmen, because it's harder to go back when you've been gone," Wollerman explained. "The home schools are giving them the skills, they're just not using them. We just flip the switch for them and when that happens, it's an awesome thing to see."

Wollerman said that most of the students who come to Revive and the other alternative schools will stay there, as long as it's the best fit for them. There is the opportunity to go back at any time, but the situation has to be right for the student and their family.

The junior high program, which is called the Phoenix Safe School, is a little different. Most of those students are only there for a year in order to get caught up, then will return to their home schools, hopefully with a new set of skills to help them succeed.

"Sometimes that's difficult to do, because they have that label on them," Wollerman said. "We work really hard, not only with the student, but with the home school to help that transition."

Regardless of the situation though, the goal of bettering students, and teachers, is the same.

"It sounds crazy and we joke about it, but we really are a family. We all kind of came in at the same time together. We've all had our different issues, but it's pretty special," said Barnes. "The biggest thing is that we get to work on ourselves emotionally and build ourselves up to be better citizens. A lot of times that's lost everywhere else."

What was once lost, has now been found. In other words, a revival.

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