Different by Design
By: Jean Schlitzkus
Success High School Principal Thomasine Stewart does not give up on students, and she doesn’t allow students to give up on themselves. “Failing a course is not an option,” says Stewart. “If they hit a road block, we don’t keep proceeding. We look at re-teaching, additional support, tutorials, whatever they need.” Students at Success High School in Round Rock, Texas, are not allowed to fail a course and move forward.” Stewart says, “These are different people, taking different subjects, so we re-teach in many different ways.”
The belief that all students learn differently is at the heart of the Success program. Educators and students must collaborate to find an individualized way to get to graduation—and this collaboration is what makes the school truly unique. As the name “alternative school” suggests, the program at Success is an alternative to traditional teaching.
Alternative education is not a new idea, but it has evolved. In the second half of the 20th century, many alternative schools were designed to serve students who had dropped out of or been expelled from traditional schools. Today, school districts are taking a more proactive approach as part of their comprehensive dropout prevention programs and the state’s compensatory education program. The focus is now on providing opportunities for students in at-risk situations to be successful through a non-traditional high school diploma program.
Stewart prefers to call Success a “school of choice,” rather than an “alternative school,” because the school serves students from area high schools who choose to apply. By design, a school of choice like Success offers voluntary participation, a small school size, highly invested educators, and personalized instruction.
More recently, the concept of school choice has come to mean a wide range of educational programs that include charter schools, magnet schools, and homeschooling. But in-district programs like Success aren’t embroiled in controversies over private school vouchers, tuition tax credits, or similar attempts to direct public funds to private, home, or for-profit schools.
Stewart is clear that by describing Success as a school of choice, she is highlighting the students’ active commitment to their own education. “They are focused and they are taking ownership of their education,” says Stewart. “The current, traditional model tends to be powerful for a number of students, but there are individuals for whom this program is a better fit. They feel much more empowered in their education. They are much more aware of where they are going and why they are going in that direction.”
Success is often one of the first institutions to celebrate a student’s individual skills. Stewart says, “I have students who haven’t received an award since they were in elementary school, and we are giving those students recognition. They are kids who haven’t had the vehicle to show what they can do, and we are giving them opportunities to reach heights they lost along the way.”
Contrary to common misconceptions about alternative schools, not everyone attending the school is doing so because they’ve gotten into trouble at a traditional campus and could no longer remain there. For example, some students have struggled with medical or mental health issues that have been detrimental to their progress in school. Stewart says there are students at her high school with sickle cell anemia, cancer, and scoliosis. “Even though the district offers homebound services, depending on the severity of a student’s injury or condition,” she says, “students still might fall behind.”
There are also students who have assumed adult roles in their families. Many are balancing schoolwork and the responsibility of being the primary breadwinner at home.
Students also apply to Success because they want to work at an accelerated pace, prefer nontraditional work environments, have unique scheduling needs, are pregnant or parenting, or experience social difficulties in traditional schools. Stewart says, “The educators here have a great passion for working with at-risk students who have had some hurdles to overcome—it could be anything from being awkward to being homeless.”
A Blended Approach to Learning
Students at Success work at their own pace and receive individual instruction. In general, students earn course credits after working through lessons and tests on a computer, but they also benefit from a teacher-led classroom. The blended approach to teaching extends into what Stewart calls “experiences.” These are hands-on learning opportunities that are relevant to students in several different courses or sections of a course.
Part of the challenge for administrators at schools like Success is debunking outdated ideas about alternative schools’ curriculum. The alternative education programs of the 1950s and 1960s—what some might have called diploma or GED mills—are a thing of the past.
Stewart insists that the online courses, which are aligned with Round Rock ISD’s curriculum and have been tested by a number of people in the district, are rigorous and require a great deal of time and effort from the students. “We know for some students, the traditional way of teaching works,” she says. “But we also know that the students are technology natives and they are coming to us doing far more online and empowering themselves.”
Success High School is not only accountable for all of the state tests but also participates in the state-legislated program designed to improve student success in college, Texas Success Initiative, and the ApplyTexas project for college admissions. “Parents might come in with an older version of what an alternative school is in their minds, but when they find out that the testing is the same and that we are sending kids to take the ACT and the SAT, they are impressed,” she says. “We talk to them about the next step after secondary for their child. It’s a paradigm shift in thinking.”
One of the biggest draws of Success High School for students and parents is flexibility in terms of scheduling. Success is open 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, as well as 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. At Success, every teacher and every subject are continuously available. Stewart says that when a student is struggling in a particular subject, the school’s flexible scheduling allows the student to spend more time receiving help in the challenging class.
The educators at Success are experts at diagnosing when a student needs additional time or additional tutoring. Another trait Stewart looks for when she’s hiring staff is multiple credentials. “The more credentials you have, the more flexibility I have in moving kids and balancing the classes,” she says. The teachers at Success are capable of easily adapting from one content area—and one student—to another. “These educators are special,” says Stewart. “They don’t stick to traditional structure because that structure didn’t work for the kids.”
A Caring Campus Family
There is another attribute that Stewart looks for in educators that is just as valuable to her as credentials, flexibility, and content mastery—applicants must prioritize relationships. “We look for people who know how to establish relationships, because we have to remember that the students are coming here for many different reasons,” she says. The educators at Success have to be comfortable having difficult conversations with students.
Career and technical education teacher Catherine Chang says having educators who care makes a big difference in students’ lives. “If we know there are problems, we talk to them,” says Chang. “Even though they may have family problems, when the students come here, at least they have someone to talk to in a safe place.”
Students are assigned advisors who mentor and advocate on their behalf. “You have to be able to work with very determined young people, who may have had failures along the way, who didn’t do the work, or who question the work,” says Stewart. “You have to get them back on track.”
Conversations in the teachers’ lounge and in the halls cover the usual school subjects but can also revolve around teenage brain development, socioemotional issues, and economics. “We are looking at their clothes, watching their eating habits, and talking about whether they are being properly cared for,” says Stewart.
School staff often donates necessities like food. They have also helped provide things like interview clothing, food handler cards, and job leads. More than one student has found a job with the help of the staff.
An Innovative New Campus
Before the new campus was built, the Success program was housed in portables behind Round Rock’s Stony Point High School. During the years behind the 6A school, science labs were nonexistent, art students hauled jugs of water from the high school because the portables had no water system, and students and staff dealt with occasional blackouts thanks to easily tripped fuses. Stewart recalls the prolonged push build a new facility. “It was a battle,” she says. “We often said, ‘Give us that building and we’re going to show you what we can do.’”
After nearly 20 years of coping with less-than-ideal learning conditions, the Round Rock School Board approved a plan to build a new high school. The $21 million dollar building, purchased with money from the district’s general operating fund balance, was completed in 2014. There has been a waiting list to enroll since the doors of the 68,000 square-foot building opened, and the school quickly became a model for other districts nationwide.
First-time visitors to the new high school are often struck by the contrast to classes held in portables and preconceived notions about alternative school facilities. Large multipanel windows fill the two-story commons space with natural light. This area is a multifunctional space, complete with sliding walls and movable furniture, for meeting and studying. Students also have access to integrated labs, design studios with operable partitions, and multipurpose rooms. And whenever creativity strikes, students are encouraged to use writeable walls in breakout areas surrounding the commons space. The campus is also home to media labs, a multi-use library, an onsite childcare center, a food service kitchen, and fitness facilities.
Chang is in her 21st year at Success and taught in the portables. She says she touches the walls of the new building daily. “There’s a big difference when you have a building that a kid can be proud of,” she says. “To have a school built especially for them—it builds up their confidence and makes them feel worthwhile.”
Stephanie Williams calls Success a godsend. Following anxiety-filled freshman and sophomore years at a traditional high school, her daughter, Morgan, graduated from the alternative school a year and a half early. That accomplishment is a testament to Morgan’s determination and her family’s support and is proof that the school is living up to its name.
Morgan began struggling with anxiety in middle school, but she hoped her symptoms would fade as she began high school. That didn’t happen. She struggled her freshman and sophomore years and began missing school. “There were sometimes 30 or more students in one classroom,” Morgan says. “I couldn’t keep up with the teacher because people were talking nonstop.”
Morgan’s school counselor encouraged her to apply to Success. She was accepted at the beginning of her junior year and graduated at the beginning of the spring semester.
Morgan says individualized instruction, the ability to focus on her work, and caring educators helped her succeed. “The teachers care about the kids personally,” she says. “They don’t judge you by your past. If you need help, they are here to help. I didn’t feel that way in a traditional school.”
Morgan is planning to enroll in her first college class this summer. “I’m going to start with one course and make my way because I want to go into nursing.” She doesn’t hesitate when she adds, “College is definitely going to happen.”
Menberu Zewdie had a dilemma. He was born in Africa and his parents moved to Austin when he was a year old. After Menberu finished eighth grade, his father decided to return home to Ethiopia and launch a startup, and he wanted his son to help him. Menberu went, and attended a private school before enrolling at the British International School.
When Menberu eventually returned to Austin, he discovered that despite the Westwood High School registrar’s best efforts, his two years in his African high school would not transfer. Menberu had a choice—stay at Westwood and graduate at age 20, or accelerate the pace of his coursework by attending Success. He chose to complete his high school credits in two years versus four.
At Success, Menberu appreciates more than just the accelerated pace of learning. He says the teachers dedicate themselves to the students. “They really, truly, deeply care,” he says. “Not to say that other teachers at other schools don’t, but there are so many students there that they can’t focus on individual students’ needs. Here, they are more attentive because they can be.”
Menberu plans to pay that dedication forward. Even though he has already been accepted at universities, he plans to enlist in the Navy. He says that being in the service requires a selfless attitude, not unlike that of the teachers at Success, and following their lead means more to him than anything else.