Monday, December 9, 2013

Alternative school inspires students with love and individual attention - By Elizabeth Richards

How does a school inspire students, staff and alumni so much that they even show up during school break? A conversation with Pender Makin, principal of the REAL School, shed some light on what this alternative school is able to accomplish, and how they do it.
The REAL School, based on Mackworth Island, is part of RSU 14. It is a regional alternative and day treatment school serving students from many districts throughout southern Maine. There is no “typical” REAL School student. The school serves a range of students, some with no disabilities and a 160 IQ, and some with some significant disabilities, said Makin. The one thing they share is that they were not successful in their prior school settings, struggling with cognitive, social or behavioral issues throughout their years in school.

How does the REAL School inspire these students to succeed when other schools couldn’t? Makin says love has a lot to do with it. “You don’t hear the L word in public education very often. But love and happiness are really critical to learning for kids, especially for kids who have struggled to be successful or feel connected in their previous settings,” she said.

Showing this love for the students happens in a variety of ways starting with an enthusiastic welcome to school each day. Staff members gather outside to greet the vans waving, fist bumping and welcoming kids in a way that shows them that the staff is happy to see them. “If they want to walk a wide circle around us they can, but we’re never going to walk a wide circle around them,” says Makin. Just making sure they know that people are happy to see them can set up a positive dynamic, she added.

Makin said she emphasizes the love and happiness because she thinks it makes the critical difference. “There’s a lot of ineffective treatment out there,” she said. “I think maybe it’s because it isn’t offered with real open hearted acceptance and respect for the individual person.” Many treatment centers try to apply standardized approaches to the students they serve, she said. Makin said that although these approaches can offer short term behavior modification solutions, it’s not lasting. “They can pretty quickly get people to comply behaviorally, but it’s not touching their heart or their investment in themselves as a human,” said Makin.

At the REAL School, they ride out behavioral challenges and work without punitive discipline – no detention or suspensions happen at the REAL School – to create longer lasting change. They also treat each student as an individual.

This approach makes a difference to students. Curtis Arnold, who is in his first year at the REAL School said he feels as though he’s treated like a young adult, where his opinions are valued. “In this school, they give service to your one to one individual needs,” he said. 

Emily Denbow agreed. “I’m excited to go to school because I know that I’m going to get here and the teachers are going want to see me. They accept everybody, but beyond that they’ll do whatever it takes to get through to you on an individual basis,” she said.

On Monday morning during Thanksgiving break several current students, alumni, and staff were at the school preparing to shop for a Thanksgiving feast being held on Tuesday afternoon. Some were baking in the kitchen, others worked on a written gratitude project, and still others popped in and out to chat and make connections. Conversation flowed easily, and activity never stopped. 

The connections between all members of the school community can be felt in every interaction. Arnold said, “You can relate the REAL School to being a second family, a second home.” He added, “If you were to ask any student that walks through this building if they love this school, they will most certainly 100 percent say ‘yes’.” 

Denbow said that attending the REAL School was her alternative to dropping out. Unhappy where she was, she said that when she was given this option she decided to give school one more try. “I haven’t regretted it since,” she said. “For the first time in my high school career, I’m passing every class this semester.” 

It can be difficult to run this kind of program with the mandates set out for public schools both federally and statewide. Makin said they focus on interpreting those mandates through the filter of what is right for the kids. “We’re really a values based organization within the larger public school framework. It’s not an easy balance to maintain, but all of our teachers have tremendous professional courage, and it’s about our kids,” said Makin.

There are four programs that house 60 students at the REAL School. Approximately half the students are in the regular program. Their day begins in a homeroom setting, with breakfast, morning meeting and goal setting for the day. From there, the students work on their interdisciplinary service learning projects.
There are many of these projects being worked on simultaneously. One group is planning all aspects of a medical and educational relief trip to the Dominican Republic; another is working on a Veteran’s history project where they interview veterans of wars, edit the video interviews, and plan to deliver these to the Library of Congress where they will be archived; and a third group working on a project for the Portland Water District to raise and rebuild a boardwalk over an estuary. 

In addition, there are students with individual projects. Arnold, for instance, is working on a project with Generation On to facilitate a ropes course experience for a group of middle school students from Portland.
At the end of the semester, the students have a capstone presentation, where they take ownership of demonstrating the standards they have achieved, said Makin. After lunch, the students in this program spend time in more traditional classes

The second largest program at the REAL School is the Agriculture and Culinary Arts Program. These students plan, prepare and serve breakfast and lunch to all the REAL School and Baxter School students three days a week. There are gardens and a hoop house, built by students, where fresh vegetables are grown and used as often as possible. On days they are not serving, these students are planning, doing prep cooking, evaluating the nutritional aspects of their menus, and attending regular classes. 

Most of the courses at the REAL school are multi-age and interdisciplinary, where students work within their individual capacities towards individual goals said Makin, similar to the old one room schoolhouse style.
A third program is the REAL school preparatory academy, which is comprised of students who need a very structured, individualized program for a variety of reasons. These students have one adult per student in the classroom, which may include a teacher, educational technician and Americorps volunteers.

The final program offered at the school is a long term restorative learning program. This is for students with ongoing egregious behaviors that routinely interfere with the teaching and learning of others, said Makin. The teachers work with these students in what they call a restorative learning process, to help them earn back the privileges of the larger school setting.

Because the school has a variety of non-traditional programs, they must get creative with finding funding streams. Approximately one-third of their operating costs come from RSU 14. Another third is from tuition and transportation revenue from other districts. The final third comes from a combination of grants, which the staff is constantly writing, professional development services provided by REAL school staff, private donors and fundraisers.

The workplace readiness program is funded by an anonymous donor. Through this program, students are able to train, apply for and hold down jobs and get paid in Hannaford gift cards. Another private donor supports the teen aspirations fund, which can provide money for things like an outfit for a job interview, a test fee, or a college application fee. In short, it can help with “any little barriers that would get in the way financially of having our kids having the best chance at anything they want to do with their lives,” said Makin.
And what do REAL School graduates do with their lives? Every graduating student has a plan in place so that they can answer the question “what are you doing tomorrow?” said Makin. The range is as wide as students from any school. 

There are graduates who have completed four-year degrees, said Makin, who recently received an invitation to a former student’s graduation from an RN program. They have graduates in the service, in community college, and who have gone right to work after school.

George Mann, a 2013 graduate, went straight to work in a store in Biddeford after graduation. Of his REAL School experience, he said “It’s not all about authority figures here like it is in other places.” He added that the staff at the REAL School listens, rather than treating the students like kids who don’t know anything. He said he comes back to visit, “Because I love these guys.”

The feeling is clearly mutual. “We are lucky to have the sweetest, nicest most interesting young people ever – it’s an amazing way to live your life,” said Makin.

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