By Carol Stiffler
Just west of the Newberry Post Office, tucked inside what was once a grocery store, a building that at first seems vacant is actually teeming with second chances.
Inside, about two dozen teens gather on every weekday to work toward earning their high school diploma. They got there the hard way: Something about traditional high school didn’t work for them, or some part of life got in the way of education.
But they didn’t give up. After an early exit from high school in Newberry, Engadine, or another nearby school, they have opted for plan B: earning a diploma from Consolidated Community School Services (CCSS).
Also called the Newberry Alternative School, the one-room school instructs students in grades 9 and higher, until the student graduates or reaches age 19. Because classes are online and self-paced, and only 18 credit hours are required, it’s possible to graduate early without skipping any work. Class is held on weekdays from 8:20 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
No one forces them to go to school. School attendance is technically required by law, but Luce County has no truancy officer. That makes it easy to be a dropout, but dropping out is not what these kids have in mind.
“This is a parent and family choice,” said Beth Browe, who has taught at the school for seven years. “You choose to come here.”
And they’re not dropouts. Students at the alternative school are attending a credentialed public school, working toward a high school diploma, not a GED.
“It’s clearly a second choice,” said Bill Henry, CCSS director. “Obviously, the best scenario is earning a diploma at a traditional high school. But that doesn’t work for every student, and this is the next best thing.”
Some of the students got into trouble, got pregnant, or failed too many classes. Others found the traditional high school setting made them too anxious, Henry said, and feel more comfortable in the alternative setting.
When a student enrolls with CCSS, earned credit hours follow them, and an individualized plan is mapped out toward graduation. All work is done online, and students aim to complete 30 online lessons per week. They can binge on one course, like biology, all week, or spread out their efforts between all subjects.
Browe supports and encourages students, but doesn’t let them get away with much. Bringing tobacco to school is an automatic three-day suspension. Threats or insubordination can earn a student a 30-day sit out, and a behavior contract to sign upon return.
Browe works with the students to create classroom rules. She also leans on them to decorate their classroom and keep it clean, which helps them feel pride and ownership. When her students find a beneficial hobby, she supports it. These days, the students take “brain breaks” to color, build objects with a 3D printer or use perler beads to create art. She keeps coffee, snacks, and meal foods on hand so the kids can eat if they’re hungry. Food at home is sometimes scarce, she said.
She also observes, values, and listens to them. For kids who have sometimes been told they’ll “never graduate” and “never have a job”, that matters.
Last year, Browe cheered on 12 graduates from Newberry’s alternative school. Some of her graduates have gone on to college, or well-paying jobs, or even culinary school. Others have gotten “lost” again, and she worries about them. Still others return to visit her with their children, or refer siblings and friends to the alternative school.
“These kids, they’re my kids,” Browe said. “I look out for them. I want to make sure they succeed, and are happy.”
The school gets funding from a myriad of sources, kind of like how spaghetti is made of many noodles but assembles onto one plate. The school staffs a single teacher – Browe – and Sandy Edie, a paraprofessional. Edie’s husband, Dave, is the school coordinator and the sole substitute teacher.
The school is largely invisible in the community, and doesn’t seek attention. There are no sports events and few outdoor activities. Graduating on time is the focus.
“These are good kids,” Browe said. “They’re all good kids, underneath. They just got lost on their way.”
Browe and the students recently updated an Amazon Wishlist with items they’d love to use in the classroom. To view the list, visit: amzn.to/3EeS9sF (case sensitive).