WATERLOO --- Senior Kadi Brase began attending the Waterloo Educational and Behavioral Center in September as an alternative to possible expulsion from East High School.
"I was just all over the place when I was at East," she said.
Brase had gotten into a fight with another girl, but it wasn't her first time in trouble at school. She didn't turn in homework and had a lot of referrals for skipping. The only class Brase ever attended regularly was music. Needless to say, she wasn't on track to graduate this year.
Her behavior continued to be a problem when she arrived at the center, commonly referred to as WEBC.
"When I first got here, I didn't want to listen," said Brase, who describes herself as easily distracted. Her misbehavior resulted in a number of visits to the "intervention" room. Eventually, she did begin to listen as administrators took her aside and explained their expectations.
"I haven't been to intervention since September," Brase said last week. Instead, she's staying on task and earning credits for her work in class.
When she arrived at WEBC, Brase was behind in school. Now, with the final semester of her senior year starting, she is three classes away from graduating. But rather than returning to East, she began at Expo High School on Thursday.
"I chose to go down to Expo so I can actually graduate and not go back to my old ways," said Brase. And by "down," she means going from the top level of the Expo Alternative Learning Center, where WEBC is, to the main floor, where the high school is located.
The Expo Alternative Learning Center opened Jan. 3 when students returned from winter break. Located in the former McKinstry building at 1410 Independence Ave., it is the consolidated site for all Waterloo Community Schools' alternative education.
That includes Expo High School, WEBC, Grad Connection, the Special Education Transition and Resource Center, and the Transition Alliance Program.
Originally, it was slated to open in the fall, but renovation delays pushed back that date.
The idea of a single building for district alternative education first emerged about a year ago, as officials proposed cost-saving measures to deal with a 10 percent cut in state aid.
Other changes put in place include switching to the online Plato Learning Systems curriculum for core academic classes and serving Waterloo students in-district who attended Area Education Agency 267's Devonshire School. That program is now called the Special Education Transition and Resource Center, or STAR-C. Officials projected the changes would slightly more than $1 million annually.
Starting in the fall, all students began working on computers using the Plato curriculum to complete core academic classes in math, English, social studies and science. A portion of students' coursework in these classes remains offline. Nonacademic classes and most electives are still taught in a traditional classroom setting.
Working online removes classroom distractions that drag down the achievement of many struggling students. That is the same approach as in East and West high schools' performance-based diploma academies, designed for students who have fallen behind in their credits.
Alternative Learning Center administrators contend that the online, go-at-your-own-pace curriculum combined with a single location for all programs has more benefit than cost savings, though. They point to the success of students like Brase at WEBC and her decision to move on to Expo High.
"I think it's an eye-opening experience for our kids to find that they can be successful," said Brenton Shavers, principal of the Alternative Learning Center. Educators want to capitalize on that success rather than sending students back to the situation they were struggling in at their home school.
"Once we get a kid over here, we're able to find the most appropriate placement," said Cary Wieland, an assistant principal who oversees WEBC. Sometimes that still means sending students back to East or West high schools.
In many cases, though, those students do better in the smaller classrooms offered at Expo. They also have easier access to a wider array of resources like counseling and support staff services now that all alternative programs are in one building. All of that makes the transition from one alternative program to another easier.
Shavers said enrollment in all programs at the Learning Center --- which also includes middle schoolers in WEBC and STAR-C --- typically ranges between 350 and 400 students. Expo High School's enrollment fluctuates between 125 and 175 students based on when students complete all their credits.
Expo offers smaller classes and a lower student-to-teacher ratio than other district high schools. Shavers said that helps many students who struggled elsewhere to feel connected.
"We have students who have attended East and West (high schools) who don't feel like they fit into that structure," said Shavers. "It's truly about the relationships and making sure the students are successful in all situations."
Although the school is too small to have full career interest academies like East and West are implementing, Expo is developing a career pathways approach. Shavers said students indicating particular career interest areas will be guided to appropriate classes. Teachers will also take steps to tailor classes to those interests.
Shavers acknowledged that the school has gone through a lot of changes starting with the Plato online curriculum this fall. "We all struggled with that during the first weeks of school," he said.
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Senior Anshonique Burks, who's thinking beyond high school, still has her doubts about learning online.
"I don't think all classes should be (on) Plato." Burks, who was having lunch in the cafeteria, is concerned that a college might not accept her application because of the online classes this year.
LaQuanisha Stovall, another senior, isn't completely against taking classes online. "I like some of them on computers, but the math's got to go."
She's not that enthusiastic about her school switching to a new building, either. "I don't like it, but I like it that I don't have to walk up stairs," said Stovall. Expo's former building had multiple floors.
Expo students and staff gained other amenities with the new building that some in the cafeteria spoke of favorably. The other school didn't have a cafeteria, auditorium or lockers. But some students also see those as drawbacks.
"I like the other school better," said freshman D.J. Harrington.
"They're trying to be more like East and West," said freshman Keyon Garner, putting in place more rules and restrictions. The teen-agers noted that because there's a cafeteria the school no longer has open lunch and students can't wear their jackets around the building since it has lockers.
Burks also objected to Expo being in the same building as WEBC and STAR-C, noting the differences in how students end up in each program. Kids get placed in the other programs due to behavior issues while Expo students choose to transfer in because they're more suited to the alternative school setting.
"They make us look bad, but we try hard not to look bad," she said.
Programs stay separate
Programs on each floor of the Alternative Learning Center remain separate, requiring the use of a staff member's key card to open the doors. The school also features secure entry ways with metal detectors. After the start of classes, a staff member posted at the front door has to let in all students and visitors.
STAR-C, located on the lower level of the Alternative Learning Center, had 80 students enrolled about a week ago.
"What we require is that the home school implement interventions in that setting before moving over to our program," Henry Shepherd, an assistant principal who oversees the program, said of the special education students in the program. "They may have academic difficulties, but the reason they're here is behavior."
He noted, "They could transition out of our program in as little as four weeks." Initially, students attend part time at STAR-C and in special education classes at their home school before returning there full time. Shepherd said those who continue having difficulties could still return to STAR-C for a day, a week or longer.
The Transition Alliance Program, whose offices are located on the building's upper level with WEBC, receives 40 to 50 referrals from the district every year. Coordinator Cindy Geiger said students ages 16 to 25 with physical or learning disabilities as well as any other barriers to employment are taught vocational, college readiness and independent living skills. Staff continues monthly contacts with participants while they are eligible for the program.
Along with Waterloo students, WEBC works with the Cedar Falls, Dunkerton, Dike-New Hartford, Janesville, Hudson and Union school districts. Some students spend three to 10 days in the program after being suspended from their home school. Others are there for a longer period of time, coming to the center in lieu of being expelled.
About a week ago, 100 students were attending classes at WEBC. Wieland said it has served 350 students since the beginning of the year. After going through the program, students head back to their home school or consider another placement, like Expo.
Grad Connection, which is also located on building's upper level, serves students who have returned after dropping out. "They come when they want to, they leave when they want to," said Wieland. Students have to show continued progress on completing coursework to stay in the program.
"It's just another opportunity for them to get back on track," added Kory Kelchen, the program's coordinator. He noted that 150 students came through the program during first semester with 95 earning about 300 credits. Eleven students who were in the program this year have already completed all their remaining requirements.
Several students said they like their space in the new building, which is about twice as large as before the move. Calon Petersen, a junior from West High, has enjoyed Grad Connection but was getting ready to move out of the program last week.
"I'm going down to Expo," he said, to complete some electives not available in the program. Petersen would rather stay at Grad Connection but the transition shouldn't be difficult if administrators are right. Petersen will continue going to school in the same building and be familiar with some of the staff.
Brase, the WEBC student who is also heading to Expo, said being part of the program helped her clarify some essentials. She "didn't have a clear idea of what I needed to graduate" until arriving at WEBC.
"I'm glad I got sent here," she added. After graduation, she wants to join the U.S. Air Force or enroll in Hawkeye Community College's police science program.
"I actually want to be a probation officer," said Brase. "I just want to help kids like me. I think the school turned my whole life around."