Local teachers and counselors regularly look for students who want to finish high school on time but can’t because they’ve been sick, work full or nearly full time or face other challenges that stop them from spending seven hours in class five days a week.
For those students, an alternative to the traditional high school schedule is a necessity in order to graduate.
About a decade ago, when school districts including Center Grove and Clark-Pleasant opened alternative academies, they were intended for students who were failing their classes and were in danger of dropping out of high school.
Alternative academies in Johnson County still have spots for students who fall behind in their schoolwork because they couldn’t get along with teachers and students or succeed in their regular classes, but school officials want to be sure other students can enroll in alternative programs as well.
“Back in the day, when these academies first started, I think that was the stereotype,” Clark-Pleasant Academy director Lisa Morris said. “Now I think that’s evolved.”
At alternative academies, students work online to complete courses at their own pace, which is part of what enables them to work full-time jobs, take care of children or handle other obligations and still earn their diplomas on time.
But Morris and Indian Creek Learning Center director Adam Blackburn also want to be sure that students still take challenging courses and regularly attend class, just as they would at a traditional high school. Morris wants the alternative program’s teachers to start creating more challenging academic goals, which could include taking more rigorous courses.
At least 70 students will graduate from alternative programs at Center Grove, Clark-Pleasant and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools this spring. And most local school districts are looking for ways to improve, expand or start alternative programs.
“I think it gives students some much-needed options, and it gives us some options,” Morris said.
Next year Greenwood schools will partner with The Crossing, a faith-based alternative program for students with behavioral problems who are at risk for dropping out.
Clark-Pleasant, which has spots for about 60 students in its alternative academy, also will partner with The Crossing. The two school districts expect to send about 40 students to the new program. Partnering with The Crossing will enable the districts to provide more students with options to complete high school, school officials said.
Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson launched the Indian Creek Learning Center, which has room for a total of 30 full- or part-time students who are trying to complete their courses and graduate on time. Thirteen students will graduate from the learning center this school year, and now Blackburn is thinking about ways to improve the program.
One of his biggest challenges is ensuring that all of the students enrolled in the program complete their courses on schedule and show up for class every day.
Blackburn is the only staff member at the Indian Creek Learning Center, overseeing 15 students in the morning and 15 in the afternoon. He spends most of his time working with students asking for individual help, so that makes it difficult to keep track of others who might not show up every day or who fall behind, he said.
And when students fall behind at an alternative academy, they sometimes scramble up until the week of graduation to complete all of their courses so they can receive their diploma, Morris and Blackburn said.
“I wish they had done (the work) three or four months ago,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn wants the learning center to be able to accommodate students who can’t attend Indian Creek High School because they work full time or irregular hours, but next year he may ask school officials to create more specific attendance requirements so that students in the program know exactly when they’re expected to show up for class.
He also would like the school district to consider adding teaching aides, so that more people can help ensure students finish on time.