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'We Give Them A Different Story To Tell'

Alternative programs in high schools can carry a stigma as a last refuge for dropouts and troublemakers. But one alternative program in central Vermont is gaining a reputation for helping struggling students find their strengths and give back to their community. On this, the last day of school at Northfield Middle-High School, we hear the stories of two students who’ve found growth and success in the school’s alternative program.

Heat and mosquitoes hang in the air in Northfield’s school forest, as students and a teacher survey a muddy trail here. Building this trail was the idea of students in the school’s STAR program – Students Taking Alternative Routes.  Outdoor education is a cornerstone of STAR, but the students aren’t just spending their time walking in the woods.  The project has meant researching Act 250 permits, collaborating with town officials and learning from local experts, in addition to the physical work.

All of that seems unlikely for the kind of student that 17-year old Eric Moore says he was in the ‘regular’ high school. "To be honest with you, when I was in ninth grade, at this point I probably saw myself in jail,” he says, laughing at the memory. He did some things that almost got expelled back then. But instead of leaving school altogether, he came to STAR and says his attitude changed completely over the three years he's been in the program. "I’m not as quick to anger as I was," says Moore. "I’m able to step back from a situation now and realize what’s going on and change it so it’s less frustrating for me.”

Eric credits the STAR program’s director, Luke Foley, with turning him around. "I used to blow up a lot in the program when I first got here, where I’d end up leaving and swearing, like ‘F you! I’m done with this place!’ " recounts Moore. "And he stuck with me. He’d run me down – I’d be half a mile to my house and he’d run me down and say, ‘c’mon, let’s go back to the school and talk this out.'"

Foley says the students in his program are here for a variety of reasons – behavioral problems, anxiety with peers, academic struggles. He says, basically, they have a hard time fitting in in a traditional school setting. "The students that we have, [they] have stories of struggle, and of failure, and of disconnection, and feeling disenfranchised," says Foley.  "And what we try to do here is give them a different story to tell – that story is of success, of connection, of community. The more they can tell that story, it starts to become who they are. And the opposite was happening before, where they were becoming their failures and frustrations – because that was the only story they had to tell.”

Eighteen-year old Kelsey Bourne stands in front of the STAR program building, inspecting a garden project that's underway. The project she leads is focused on permaculture – today they’re building a raised flower bed. Kelsey got into the alternative program because she had trouble academically. "I had a lot of problems completing my work.  I would do the work in class but I wouldn’t finish my homework. Just a normal thing that all kids do, but it’s important. And I also had a lot of trouble with math.”

As a three-year student in STAR, Kelsey has worked on projects to build a greenhouse, grow food and beautify the school property. All of it supported by a grant that Kelsey herself wrote. Being in the STAR program, she says, changed her whole demeanor. “I used to be very bratty, and cared just about myself," she says matter-of-factly. "Another typical teenage thing. But I broke out of it quicker than I would have if I was down at the high school." She says the change came from seeing the teachers and other students in the alternative program as a family. "You can be yourself and, you know, we pick and pry a little bit, but we don’t judge." Kelsey says the supportive atmosphere makes it possible for the teens to take on the kind of ambitious projects they have in the program.

Luke Foley, the program director, says Northfield’s alternative program puts an emphasis on building a relationship with each student as way to support their education. But his approach also demands that students learn to be accountable for themselves. “A lot of kids feel disempowered," Foley says. "And unfortunately that can lead to a victim stance, which is that – ‘oh, all these terrible things have happened to me, and it’s everyone else’s fault.’ When in reality, they have a lot of power. Even if it’s just their own attitude.”

Kelsey Bourne and Eric Moore are both examples of the growth that Foley hopes for in his students.  The end of this semester marks the close of their time in the STAR program. Eric is a junior, and he’ll spend his senior year at the Randolph Technical Career Center’s criminal justice program – he wants to be a police officer when he’s done. Kelsey is graduating from Northfield this year and she’ll be a college student this fall. She plans to double-major in writing and education.

Note:

Northfield Middle-High School ends the school year some notable accolades. School principal Ryan Parkman was named Vermont high school Principal of the Year. And Luke Foley, director of the STAR program, was named Vermont Teacher of the Year. They both met President Obama at separate White House ceremonies this spring. Congratulations, and happy summer.