By Christian Basnight
For some students, sitting in a traditional classroom with several other children for seven hours a day five days a week is too much. They can’t concentrate, and they need alternative ways to learn.
“Sometimes a student can get into a large classroom, and they become lost,” said Bobby Hinkle, an alternative education teacher at Rockbridge County High School. “If one child is behind, the instructor has to continue to teach. But sometimes kids fall through the cracks that way.”
Alternative education, or Alt Ed, is a program for children who need personalized instruction along with social and emotional support. Alt Ed students take different classes, mostly online, apart from the general education curriculum. Some students may only participate in the alternative education program for a few class periods. Other students attend Alt Ed classes for the entire school day.
The Alt Ed program at Rockbridge County High School began serving ninth through 12th graders last August. Maury River Middle kickstarted its program in October and serves about six children.
“These students are provided that high school [or middle school] experience in their own program,” said Angela Wilder, director of alternative education for Rockbridge County Public Schools. “They’re separate, but they have the opportunity to venture into general education based on their ability to perform and be immersed in the full campus. Some students just aren’t ready yet.”
School administrators said they realized that they needed an alternative education program after their experience with a senior academy that they held last school year. The academy helped struggling seniors earn the credits or pass the tests they needed to graduate.
“We studied and I stayed with them all day long, just to make sure that they finished the classes that they need, and that they were academically and emotionally prepared to finish,” Wilder said. “There were forty-three kids who would not have graduated that year if they had not been part of the senior academy.”
The academy’s success led the school board to fund the expansion of the program for all grades at the high school, Wilder said.
Current state of the RCHS Alt Ed program
The Alt Ed program at Rockbridge County High serves about 36 students, who use Edgenuity, an online learning program, to complete their coursework. Three Alt Ed teachers address the needs of three distinct groups of learners.
The first group consists of children who are behaviorally challenged and disrupt classes. Wilder said the program can provide an alternative to suspension from school for some students and gives them an outlet to voice their personal struggles to instructors.
“Those students are able to express themselves, whereas a Gen Ed teacher might not have time in English class, to let them talk about, ‘My mom’s car broke down again and now she can’t get to work, and I have to go work part-time on the weekends and that’s why my papers not done,’” she said. “But they can sit and talk to Mr. Hinkle about those kinds of things.”
Students with high levels of anxiety are placed in the second group. Students can use headphones to focus on their classwork.
“Imagine being distracted by someone tapping a pencil on a table,” Wilder said. “If you have high anxiety, that tapping of the pencil is going to sound more like a sledgehammer, and it’s hard to concentrate. And if you can’t concentrate, you can’t focus. And if you can’t focus, you can’t learn.”
Wilder said many students developed social anxiety after returning in person to school after classes were held virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“Students who did not have anxiety before COVID developed it from being isolated, and that’s one of the downfalls of quarantine, not having social interaction,” she said. “You need the human touch and, more importantly, you need the human heart. That’s what our Alt Ed program has.”
The third group of children have learning disabilities that may cause them to fall behind in classes. They can learn at their own pace in their classroom.
“They know that they don’t have to get twenty-five modules done before lunch, and that they have to do only what they can do. It’s very individualized,” Wilder said. “And because of that they feel that personal success if they set a goal of doing ten modules before the end of the day and they hit fifteen.”
Daniel “Danny” Wheeler, an alternative education teacher at Rockbridge County High School, said all Alt Ed students can benefit from the program’s tight-knit learning environment.
“For all of them, the commonality is that this a positive and encouraging work environment where they can focus on what needs to be done and get back on track,” he said. “They’re not walking into a room of twenty-one or twenty-two students. They’re walking into a room of no more than twelve at a given time.”
Hinkle describes his instructional approach as “therapeutic.” He said he can meet students’ needs in a way general education teachers can’t.
“We work with kids individually based upon their needs,” he said. “If a kid is hungry, we try to feed them. If a kid didn’t sleep, we’ll let them take a nap.”
For Hinkle, being an Alt Ed teacher is fulfilling but difficult work.
“It’s rewarding in the fact that you get to see successful situations with kids developing and growing,” Hinkle said. “But it’s also sometimes painful because you see what other people go through.”
Hinkle said he’s had students whose family members died from the coronavirus. Wheeler said some of the Alt Ed students don’t have a place to call home.
“The kids are experiencing the primary trauma, and we are experiencing the secondary trauma because we are getting that load that they’ve experienced and passing it on,” Hinkle said.
Mike Craft, the principal of Rockbridge County High School, said the general education teachers benefit from alternative education program.
“It’s been a win for our teachers because they were struggling to serve these kids [who need Alt Ed],” Craft said. “Now we have a place that we can serve them and that’s taken that off their plate because it was taking a lot of their time trying to get these kids remediated to get them up to speed.”
Lindsay Stutsman, who teaches an Alt Ed class at Rockbridge County High, said she believes the program will help some students form lifelong relationships.
“It’s become a very family-oriented kind of environment and you see them really stepping up for each other,” she said. “I think a lot of these kids never had that before this program. I think some of them never had even a friend.”
Craft said the program has also improved attendance and enhanced the students’ academic prospects.
“We’re getting kids that were really in danger of dropping out,” he said. “And they’re getting to a point where they can graduate.”
Looking to the future
Neil Whitmore, chair of the Rockbridge County School Board, said the school district wants to expand the Alt Ed program at Maury River Middle.
“We have seen success with the high school program and want to drop it down to the middle school,” he said. “We’ve observed that many of the issues we ultimately deal with later on at the high school level began in middle school, and sometimes, even before.”
Rockbridge County Public Schools budgeted for two additional Alt Ed teachers at the Maury River Middle for its fiscal year 2024 proposal. Whitmore said providing more middle school students with Alt Ed services could provide a smoother transition once they reach high school.
“We feel like the earlier the services are provided, it can potentially help some individuals, once they reach the high school level, to have much less need for some of those services.”