Struggling students find help at alternative learning center

By Steve Lombard
For the Seaside Courier, Feb 2014

No one said being a teenager is supposed to be easy. Most teens desire freedom from authority, while at the same time yearn for acceptance and support from family, friends and teachers.

But sometimes a strong desire to be freedom can lead to rebellion, destructive or harmful behaviors, as well as an assortment of mental, physical and emotional health issues. Often, such issues can negatively impact academic success and social development.

In an effort to provide a pathway for struggling students, the Oceanside Unified School District has established an Alternative Learning Center (ALC) on the campus of Ocean Shores High School. Launched last year, the unique program aims to guide middle and high school students struggling in a traditional or mainstream classroom setting.

Depending on their circumstances, only those students granted district approval are accepted into the program. For the 60+ students currently enrolled, the ALC has the potential to serve as a life-changing and possibly life-saving opportunity, said administrator Barry Tyler.

“We recognize each of the students we serve has a story, a history,” said Tyler. “When it comes to many of these students, people recognize there is a concern, but they don’t really have the ability or the time to get to the underlying issues so that they can support them.”

Student stories can run the gamut, from battling depression and social anxiety, to drug use, domestic abuse, gang ties, truancy and expulsion. According to Tyler, the foundation of the program is what he calls the social and emotional peace a key element did not often found in similar alternative education programs.

“Just knowing they can talk to someone who will provide good strategies in advice, and give them the support to say, ‘Hey, this is bothering me,’ it’s a huge piece of keeping some of these kids in school,” said Tyler.

Counseling is provided through individual and group sessions held outside the normal scope of the regular classroom hours. But make no mistake: Academic rigor is not lost in the process of the ALC mission.

“Sometimes when you hear people talk about the social and emotional aspect of this type of program, they devalue or deemphasize the academic piece,” said Ocean Shores principal Barbara Higgins. “We are holding both pieces in equal esteem.”

The pacing of the programs online learning and independent study approach seems to fit well for many of the students.

“Instead of moving at a really fast paced, you can move at your own pace, said a 15-year-old girl whose battle with depression caused her to miss far too many days of school. “When you need help, you can ask and the teachers actually have more time to help you.”

Transplanted from the east coast, a 17-year-old boy was expelled from his previous high school for making what some might consider “a very bad choice for all the right reasons.” He was booted for possessing a knife for what he called “protection from bullies”.

It hasn’t taken him long for the lessons of good decision-making to kick in.

“I’m learning from my mistakes and I am trying to better myself,” he said. “That’s why I am trying so hard.”

For many of the students, the ALC program is making a world of difference, considering where they’ve been and where they are now. A 16-year-old girl describes her as “a perfect example of a student who is a product of her environment.”   Born into a family with strong local gang affiliations, she is starting to blossom, realizing the impact her steadily improving academic progress will one day have on her dreams of becoming a pediatric nurse.

“Once I come to school here, I don’t have to worry about problems at home or in the neighborhood,” she said. “Before, I was failing all my classes. And now I have A’s, B’s and C’s. The program has changed me a lot.”

In the eyes of the instructor Diane King, a 25 year mainstream classroom veteran, the girls academic and social transformations are exactly why she specifically requested A transfer to join the ALC staff.

The 16-year-old “walks different league. She talks differently,’ said King. “Education is powerful, and when kids feel like they can’t achieve it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

That’s the key.

“In what we call our ‘child-find process’, students who might have just been sitting at home doing nothing, we brought them back into the district and into our program,” principal Higgins said. “It’s a conscious effort on our part to find kids who have stopped attending school for a variety of reasons.”

Keeping kids in school is what the ALC motto is all about: “Serving Our Kids First.”

“We are not just changing kids’ lives, we are saving kids’ lives,” said Tyler.

Added Higgins: “When you spend any time in the ALC, and you talk to the kids about their experiences there’s never a doubt that we shouldn’t be doing exactly what we’re doing.”

Steve Lombard is a communications specialist with the Oceanside unified school district. This story was written for an edited by the Seaside Courier as part of an effort to let local residents know what is happening in their schools.