It is unlikely anyone who has not been directly involved with an alternative learning program has a full grasp of what the program entails.
The most common conception is they are students who are be subjected to disciplinary measures — the alternative portion of the acronym — and while that is true, it’s only part of the picture.
“Some kids’ problems are based upon their choices,” Booneville Schools ALE Principal Barbette Smithson said las week. “They made the choice to do drugs, or they made the choice to steal something or whatever, and that got them in trouble. Or they don’t come to school, and that’s their choice.”
The others? That’s where the ‘Learning’ and ‘Environment’ come into play.
“With some kids it was their parents’ choices that caused their problems. They had to miss school to take care of little ones or they moved around a lot. (One student) her problems was her environment is poor,” Smithson said.
“A lot of kids just need want a chance to have something go right in their lives,” said Whit Overton, who is a teacher with the program. “They’ve never had anything go their way. We just try to provide an opportunity for them to have a chance.”
That has meant helping acquire driver’s licenses, run down birth certificates, get Social Security Cards and such.
“With most kids, their parents take care of them. They don’t have that,” said Overton. “We have to give one kid a shower just about every day because no one is there to take care of him and he doesn’t know any better.”
“We’ve got some (students) who are getting up, taking care of siblings. I’m talking about getting them up, getting a bath, feeding them, taking them to the day care and then getting themselves around to school,” said Smithson. “That’s more than most adults do, and certainly there’s not many (high school) juniors or seniors who do that.”
One in particular, Smithson said, is so involved with a nephew’s care he told program officials if forced to choose, the nephew will come first.
“He said ‘I’m all he’s got. He’s little,’” Smithson said.
So they try to accommodate the student as much as possible.
Even those familiar with an ALE program are unlikely to be able to just walk into a classroom and know exactly what is happening on any given day.
There are 18 kids in the Booneville program this semester. They range from seventh grade to senior. Other than sharing a classroom, there is almost no similarity between those students.
“We hear all the time so-and-so gets to do this, or so-and-so gets to do that. Every case is different,” said Overton. “No ALE kid’s situation is ever the same.”
“We have to individualize everything. We have paperwork when one comes (into the program). What are your goals and what are we going to do to get there. It’s not a form. It’s all individualized,” said Smithson.
The kids will fool them sometimes too. After initial meetings the ALE team, which also includes Laurie Smee, who has been with the program for 13 years, may believe a student is not on board and never will be.
“Some of them will surprise you. We asked one girl, one day, what do you want to do one day, what are you going to do to make money. She said ‘ah, whatever falls in my lap,’” said Smithson. “She’s done magnificent.”
“She’s been to more days of school since we’ve had her than she’s been to the last two years combined,” said Overton.
“Had the best report card she’s ever had,” Smithson continues. “She couldn’t wait to get home to show her dad that report card.”
Because of the variety in what makes an ALE student, there is also are an identical school days.
“Most of them are with us all day or they’ll go out for one or two classes,” said Overton. “There’s two types of ALE kids, your credit recovery kids who have fallen behind in class. They’re not discipline problems, they just need to get caught up on their grades.
“The other kind of kid either doesn’t ever come to school and their grades are bad or they’ve got another issue – pregnancy, homeless, learning disabilities, all kinds of stuff.”
Last semester there were four pregnancies and the girls involved all completed graduation requirements. Currently there are only two seniors this semester.
“There were 12 kids who got done in December and six of them should have graduated last year (in May),” said Overton. “We had a couple girls who were pregnant who were scheduled to graduate in May but they would have never made it, because their baby would be born.”
Those kids, while experiencing pregnancy, are required to, literally, do double the work to get finished Smithson said.
“We’ve got 32 kids graduate in the two years I’ve been doing this and probably 95 percent of them would have never ever graduated (without ALE),” said Overton.
“If they really want it, the opportunity is there for them to get (the diploma),” said Smithson. “If they don’t want it, there’s not much you can do.”
“Not every kid we have is a success story,” Overton adds. “We’ve had many kids come through here who just don’t want to do it so they don’t make it.”
There are also those who have court issues – Smithson goes to proceedings a couple times per month. The hearings may be for poor attendance, failed drug tests which require mandatory weekly treatments or other issues.
Two Booneville ALE students — Shane Wilkins and Halie Scantling — were recently recognized at the state capital with Diamond Awards for excelling in the program. There were only 15 awards statewide.
In recommending Wilkins for the award – a student Smithson said landed in the program due to his choices – Smithson said the sophomore was in trouble at school, home and with the law.
Wilkins spoke candidly about what got him removed from school and involved with law enforcement at a recent school board meeting.
He would find himself in front of a judge who ordered him into a program. It didn’t help. He was offered ALE as sort of a last chance as a sophomore.
Wilkins has since made up lost credits and is back on track. He seldom misses school and has not had an office referral. He is pursuing a driver’s license and has goals of college or Naval service.
“Shane has made such changes in life at school and home that he is proud of his accomplishments,” Smithson wrote. “I believe if Shane was not in the ALE he would not be in school, he would be in jail, and he would never have seen that he is very smart and capable of doing whatever he wants to in the future.”
A junior, Halie Scantling had issues that were not of her choosing, Smithson said.
Scantling’s mother was a ward of another state and recently passed away eventually rendering the girl homeless. There is apparently a history of abuse as well with almost no other family.
A cousin in Booneville came to the rescue and, since getting started in the program, she has been a force. Besides rapid improvement in her grades, she has been admitted to a certified nurse’s aide program and is nearing program completion. She also took the ACT for the first time and made a 25.
Smith says Scantling is very humbled to be living with her cousin, but she also feels she is being a burden to that family. Consequently, Smithson has involved the cousin in Halie’s successes and desires and she is fully supportive. Nonetheless, Scantling would like to get a CNA job her senior year to help support herself.
“I believe Halie would not have found her potential without our ALE program and of course her cousin,” Smithson wrote in her nomination. “I just believe Halie is a prime example of the help, care, and concern the alternative program is for children.”
Smithson said, for those who will accept it, ALE is a big family. The age differences from Smee, Smithson, Overton and student allow for child, father, grandmother and great-grandmother-ish roles.
“Some of them this is the only safe place they can go and be comfortable and be themselves,” said Overton. “They’re so used to being on the street and fighting or doing whatever and this is the only place they don’t have to do that.”
The family theme carries over to the student-to-student relationships with students holding each other accountable to rules and attitudes.
With the program moving from the former Home Ec Cottage on Kennedy Street – which sequestered the students away from their peers in a poorly equipped building in terms of electricity, to its current location in what was formerly the agriculture department within the junior high facility – the students have access to the school cafeteria, gym and library.
“We are a part of the school,” Smithson said. “They’re already isolated so if you put them out there in a building where they’re not given an opportunity (to be involved) that just adds to the problem.”
The goal, after all, especially with younger students is for the student to get out of the ALE program and return to the general population.
“If we can get them out there in some classes, maybe three or four, and eventually we can get them out there on their own,” said Smithson.