06/09/10 — Principal: Alternative school shift worked well

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Principal: Alternative school shift worked well

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on June 9, 2010 1:46 PM

Alternative schools in Wayne County have been around since 1993, when Belfast Academy was opened, followed in 1997 by Southern Academy in Mount Olive.

Both catered to students in grades 6 through 12 and were designed to be small learning environments -- an "alternative" -- for students with difficulties at their base schools, particularly in the areas of behavior, truancy and academics.

This year, the schools merged to form Wayne Middle School and Wayne High School academies, both located in the heart of the city in the former Goldsboro Intermediate School.

Its first year has been challenging, but one of transition, says principal Robert Yelverton, who began the year as principal of the middle school, while John Twitty handled similar duties at the high school.

In November, Twitty was reassigned to Goldsboro High School as its second principal. Yelverton assumed duties at both academies, while an assistant principal was brought on board.

With an average of 190 students -- compared to Belfast, which had a capacity of 120, while Southern Academy had an average of 100 students -- Yelverton prefers to look at the model as a "redirection school" where teachers and staff strive to get students back on track so they can be successful.

It's not a military school or a detention school, he points out. It's just another Wayne County Public School, only smaller.

"We do everything that the other schools are required to do but we try to take it a step further, because we know that most students are here for a reason," he said.

"A lot of people think it's all behavior (problems). Behavior is a part, is a piece of it, but attendance is another. Students are not coming to school. If they're not coming to school, they're not going to pass."

There are three main reasons contributing to a student being referred to Wayne Academy, the principal said -- behavior, grades or attendance.

"Some students that we receive, they may have stopped coming to school at the high school, behavior is not even an issue," he said. "Some of them are behind grade-wise, (or) are referred here if they have a major disciplinary offense.

"Sometimes students just make mistakes -- they may say something they shouldn't say, they just bring something to school they shouldn't. Some are referred for constant behavior problems."

The latter might be what garners the most attention, but that's just one piece, the principal said.

In some cases, he notes, parents actually request their child stay at the school because it proves a successful option.

Two components are part of the school's basic premise -- structure and parent involvement.

At the outset, parents are made aware of the expectations, rules and policies. They are also involved in the discipline aspect.

At the same time, Yelverton points out, the approach is give students "clean slate."

"We tell them, 'We're not going to hold things that happened in the past against you. This is a fresh start,'" he said.

The school has weekly contact with the parents and sends out progress reports every three weeks. The smaller environment -- average class ratio is 15 students -- also affords teachers with a greater opportunity to form relationships with students and better help where needed.

High school students referred to the school must be there for at least one semester, while middle schoolers are assigned there for at least one nine-week grading period before they are eligible to transfer back to their base school.

"Just because you're assigned here for a semester doesn't mean at the end of the semester I'm going to let you go, though," Yelverton explained. "There are some standards that (they) have to meet -- academics must be passing, attendance and behavior.

"When it's time for them to transfer back, I collaborate with those teachers, look at the documentation. I will decide whether I agree or disagree."

To set the tone at such a school, and because students come in periodically throughout the year, concerted efforts are made to ensure that each has a clear understanding of the rules.

"We get that core group established to start the school year off," he explained. "When other kids come in, they see that and they conform. It's called 'positive peer pressure' -- it's amazing, that dynamic, to see how it works."

The daily routine is also very regimented.

It had to be, Yelverton said, not only to create a workable environment for students to exist in, but also to offset the controversy surrounding the school's move to the city.

"There were some concerns at the beginning when the merger took place. There were community concerns. We put some policies in place just to make sure that the campus was secure," said Yelverton, who had been at the building as a student, a teacher and an assistant principal before returning as its principal.

When it was Goldsboro Middle School, he said, students were allowed to walk to school or be dropped off.

That's not the case now.

"If you have a student with an attendance issue, he can't be dropped off," Yelverton said. "A parent or guardian has to bring him in and sign him in."

Bus riders are a bit different, he said. Those students are all taken to the commons area.

In fact, that's consistent theme at the school.

"Students are escorted. We don't have hall passes, they're not allowed to roam, they're escorted everywhere," the principal said. "We want to make sure students are accountable at all times.

"If they're going to do something mischievous, they're going to do it when no one's around. If an adult's in proximity, they have someone to go to."

Staff is also assigned to duty stations, with high school and middle schoolers separated throughout the day, including lunch periods.

"The only time they're together is when they come in on the bus," Yelverton said.

In addition to the academic component, the school offers several programs to enhance discipline, including character education and service learning projects. There are also four parent nights during the year, set up to increase community support and parent involvement.

Reflecting on the first year as a combined school, Yelverton said there were a lot that went right this year. He plans to expand upon those successes in the fall.

"I'm excited about next year," he said.

Changing perceptions and focusing on the needs of each student will be part of that continued effort.

"I think with the misconception of the alternative school, it's always had a bad name but we just want to let everybody know that the students are referred here for a variety of reasons. We try to really focus in on what a student needs, try to give them strategies and techniques to develop skills that will allow them to be successful -- whether it's something at home causing them not to be successful, a problem with math, peer pressure, there's a lot of factors."

One of the first efforts toward a more cohesive school, Yelverton added, is to create its own identity by having its own mascot and school colors.

"Belfast was the Braves, Southern Academy was the Skyhawks," he said. "We got together and looked at a different mascot and different school colors -- they voted for Jaguars and the colors will be black and teal."