Students thrive in alternative schools

by Jessica Thompson

Seeking a personalized education unavailable at larger public schools, many elementary and high school students are turning to local alternative schools for more options.
Three schools in the Dinkytown area — the Heart of the Earth Center for American Indian Education, PEASE Academy and Second Foundation — provide specialized education programs based on student needs.
The focus of the public K-12 Heart of the Earth Center is Native American history, heritage and culture, said Gordon Ferguson, an English teacher at the school.
“Urban American Indians are pretty dispossessed,” Ferguson said. “We focus on giving these kids a sense of who they are, and providing a supportive environment that many of them lack at home.”
Ferguson estimates 98 percent of the school’s almost entirely Native American population of 250 live in extreme poverty. Last year, 25 percent of the elementary school students were homeless.
Increasing cultural pride is a primary goal of the school. One of the activities to promote this objective is a twice-weekly “Circle Time,” where the students gather for drumming, dancing and prayers in Ojibwe and Lakota.
“We try to do anything we can to create, affirm and strengthen the grounding of heritage,” he said.
Many students said they feel the school’s small size and its in-depth study of Native American culture make them feel more connected.
“I really like the focus on native issues,” said Heart of the Earth junior Sadina Abraham, who transferred to the school two years ago. “And because there are so few kids, I get a lot of help from the staff with both school and personal problems.”
Small classes and individualized teaching are also a main focus of the public Dinkytown PEASE Academy.
PEASE, or Peers Enjoying a Sober Education, is a high school consisting mostly of students with a history of chemical-use issues, many of whom have been through treatment, said PEASE Director Paul Eastwood.
The academy’s small community of 60 students, six teachers and one tutor promotes close communication between students and staff, Eastwood said.
“We work with students more individually than larger schools can,” Eastwood said. “Students know that the staff cares about them as opposed to some public schools where these kids could go unnoticed.”
At the academy, a personal learning plan is developed for each student. In addition, many services are available to assist students in maintaining sobriety including a Peer Support Team, counseling and open Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Sixteen-year-old Junior Brian Osbourne, who began attending PEASE this fall, said he feels the flexible program gives him both a sanctuary and the freedom he needs to succeed in school.
“I really feel like I have a place to go now,” Osbourne said. “I don’t think I would have made it at a different school. It is so much less stressful here, and that makes it so much easier to learn.”
Although the program is flexible, Eastwood says there are definite repercussions such as suspension for not following the rules, especially those regarding drug use.
Class president and senior Stephanie Hallett said the object of the school is to have a healthy, sober environment which guides students toward graduation.
“You don’t have to have done drugs to come here,” the 17-year-old said. “People come here because they want to be in a sober atmosphere.”
Second Foundation is another local alternative school providing a flexible and personalized learning environment for students.
The small, private K-12 school allows its 60 students to design their own learning programs. It does not give mandatory assignments or standardized tests, nor does it have formal grading policies, said teacher and co-director Starri Hedges.
“The most radical concept of our school is that we don’t force our students to do work,” Hedges said. “We strongly believe that people like to learn and that they are much likely to do better if not being forced.”
Students are encouraged to participate in the creation of all rules affecting the school, and their opinions are considered equally important to those of the staff, Hedges said.
Above all, Second Foundation operates on the principle that individuality should be encouraged, said teacher and co-director Jay Hambidge.
“We want students to follow their interests and their natural inclinations,” Hambidge said. “We feel this encourages them to become active thinkers.”

Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at (612) 627-4070 x3232