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Project Idaho: Middle School using alternative methods to help struggling students

Like other alternative schools the classrooms are smaller and no more than 75 students are enrolled in the school at one time. (File Photo)
Like other alternative schools the classrooms are smaller and no more than 75 students are enrolled in the school at one time. (File Photo)
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Rivervue Middle School gives families another option when their student is having trouble in a traditional school environment and the school started using mastery-based education here to give students the confidence they need to succeed in school.

"They come here for a variety of reasons," Principal Lora Seabaugh said. "Some kids are struggling academically. Some kids, maybe on the other side there may be more advanced academically but maybe struggle with some social skills students that just struggle in a big loud environment so yeah they just need a place to be where they can maybe just get a little more support in a different way."

Seabaugh says their counselor works with counselors at other schools in the district to find the students who need something less traditional.

"It just isn't that we all sit and learn the same way anymore,” Seabaugh said.

Like other alternative schools the classrooms are smaller and no more than 75 students are enrolled in the school at one time.

"Being a smaller environment just being able to build strong relationships with all of our students and the counseling piece in an alternative school is huge," Seabaugh said. "Having access to a counselor every day for our students and their parents and families is so important."

So the non-traditional take on education goes beyond coursework. It's something you can see as soon as you walk into Ms. Kristin Jones' English class.

The reading corner is a focal point with spray painted bus benches and strings of twinkling lights. The overhead lights stay off at all times.

"Before I had my classroom, dark with twinkle lights. I had the fluorescent lights on, and students would ask all the time, can we put the lights on? I was like, no, I can't see anything. and so, blending it so that there's enough light to work," Jones said. "That darkness, I think makes the room, honestly more inviting and kids want to come in here and work.

She works side by side with English teacher Kate Baros to make sure that students feel supported.

"She and I attended a training on trauma invested schools to make sure that we're doing everything in our classrooms and outside of our classrooms to reach kids and make sure that they know even if they're not getting the social emotional supports at home they have trusted adults available to them at school," Baros said.

Students start the day talking about ways they can achieve their goals by improving their behavior or their skills.

"A lot of times students in our school have experienced trauma, or aren't even a little bit of additional support emotionally," Baros said."When they have that experience, I'm going to turn something in and get a grade and they get a bad grade, it's like a further reflection upon themselves."

Instead of turning in work, getting a bad grade and moving on, students revise until they improve. It's all part of the mastery-based approach.

"We never refuse late work, so students are able to complete the work at their own pace and show mastery of the material and we don't ever have their grade suffer because maybe they missed a deadline,"Jones said. “It's really improved the quality of work that kids are doing, because they're not able to say, 'I'm just not going to do it.' The expectation is you will do it. You will be successful."

Science teacher Brendalynn Love says her students have 12-19 science lessons for the year but they decide what order they are learning the lessons in.

"The flexibility is now the students are taking the learning upon themselves instead of waiting for me, which was great for my students who need enrichment and don't have any questions they can go through as fast as they need to," Love said. "Then the students that need intervention, I can meet with them.”

Two days of the week are committed to PLT, personal learning time. They use their laptops to set their goals for the day, catch up on work and get additional help from their teachers.

"The personalized learning time is built in not only so the kids can choose more, you know what classes they feel like they need to work on anything, fell behind on something, they want to get caught up," Seabaugh said. "Maybe they need to seek out a teacher to get some extra help so it gives them the opportunity to be in charge of their learning, which is a huge part of the mastery piece."

"With revision and turning in quality work students begin to build their self confidence and then what we're seeing is really cool," Baros said. "We have seventh graders now who were in the program last year who are saying things like 'we're professional humans here, we work hard. We do things,' and we're like yeah you do do things, go you!"

The ultimate goal is to get these students back into a more traditional setting with their peers so these teacher spend time getting students ready for that transition.

"One of the big things that we've been working on at Rivervue is helping students to advocate for themselves. To not be afraid of their teachers and fall through the cracks," Jones said. "To say, hey, I have this place where I'm uncomfortable in my learning or I have a gap and I want to fill it in. I need help with that. And so we teach students to come talk to us in a way that is academic and professional because that's what they will be expected to do in high school."

Seabaugh says the majority of their students end up going back to a traditional high school.

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The support doesn't stop there. She says Rivervue's counselor checks in on former students and looks for ways to improve the program for current and future students.

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