ASHLAND — Kaylee Silvers dropped out of high school during her sophomore year. She lived on her own for a while but struggled to pay the bills, she said.
This past summer, Silvers got a phone call and letter from Bob Simpson, middle school principal for the Southern Boone County School District, inviting her to join the new Southern Boone Alternative Education Center. Silvers filled out an application and later was accepted.
“My parents were really happy,” she said.
Alternative schools are designed for students who struggle with education in a traditional classroom setting. Simpson said that unlike Silvers, many students are referred to him from the high school office.
After the student applies, Simpson holds an admissions meeting with the student, a parent and a school counselor to make sure he or she is committed to the alternative school’s policies. One of them is that students must attend at least 96 percent of classes.
Silvers, 18, and nine others were the alternative school’s first students when classes started on Aug. 19. By the fourth week of school, 10 additional students were added and the program reached full capacity with 20 students total. A waiting list has been started, said Simpson, who is the school's administrator in addition to his duties at Southern Boone Middle School.
The new alternative school in Ashland reflects the community’s steady growth. Ashland has more than doubled in population in the past 16 years, from 1,275 people in 1990 to about 3,000 people in 2006, according to the city of Ashland’s Web site.
Paralleled with the community’s growth, the school has expanded from a single building for grades K-12 to four schools – a primary, elementary, middle and high school – located throughout Ashland, which is about 12 miles south of Columbia.
The alternative school is on the middle school's campus and available for grades nine through 12.
“We just saw a need for it,” Simpson said. “We saw a growing amount of kids struggling with traditional education.”
Simpson explained that the students in the alternative school are not “bad” kids. Instead, some of the students have financial obligations and are helping to support their families. Others, like Silvers, had previously dropped out of school but have returned to finish.
Students are required to attend either the morning or afternoon session of class and also must spend 15 hours a week in service learning or work study.
In addition to attending the afternoon session from 12 to 3 p.m., Silvers also works at The Tan Company in Columbia. She said that her shift at the salon is from 4 to 11 p.m. but that often she does not arrive back to her Ashland home until midnight or later.
“I like the class a lot,” Silvers said. “It gives us flexibility to work.”
Had she not returned to school, Silvers said she would have likely gone after a GED and attended cosmetology school. But now, she plans to attend college after she receives her high school diploma.
Simpson said the school has workplace expectations of the students. Students complete their work online and work largely independently. Computer desks line one of the walls, and each student has access to one to complete his or her online coursework.
An interactive SMART Board is used by students and teachers to complete lessons. The software used for the coursework is OdysseyWare, which was chosen after comparing four software programs. Simpson said Southern Boone is currently one of three schools in Missouri to use this program.
Because the students have different numbers of credits to complete, each student meets with a counselor to map an individualized course of study, Simpson said.
The room that houses the program, previously a kindergarten classroom when grades K-12 were housed in one building, allows for separation between the alternative school and the middle school because it has a bathroom and sink. Simpson said the students eat their meals in the classroom.
“It’s a modernized one-room classroom,” Simpson said.
Some parents and community members initially had concerns about the alternative school’s location in the middle school, but Simpson said that after people have seen the classroom and the measures set up to keep the students separated, parents have been pleased with how things are going.
Simpson has prior experience with planning alternative school programs. He came to Ashland four years ago from Lebanon, Mo., where he helped develop an alternative school. He hopes that as the district grows, the alternative school program grows as well.
“The most rewarding thing for me is seeing a kid come back because we’ve set up the program,” Simpson said. “That’s money and time well spent.”
Silvers is grateful she was accepted into the program.
“It’s not like you want to miss class,” she said. “You got in, and you don’t want to screw it up.”