[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting to correct errors.]
Brandy Phillips’ long, sandy-brown hair falls over her back as she sits at a dark brown picnic table with books and papers spread out in front of her. She untangles a playful kitten from a piece of sweater and cuddles him gently in her arms.
“I’ll be able to graduate on time with this program,” Philips said in her soft, child-like voice. “If I was in the regular high school, I wouldn’t have been able to graduate on time.”
Brandy, 16, is a student at Champion Academy, Centralia’s new alternative school, which opened its doors Aug. 25.
Alternative schools such as Champion Academy have existed for years. Columbia’s Douglass High School has been open since 1967. But the idea has caught on in growing communities such as Centralia, where administrators used alternative programs in Moberly and Fulton as models.
Alternative schools offer students a chance to get a high school diploma in an environment tailored to accommodate their needs. At the same time, school districts get a boost to their graduation rates.
“We certainly hope that it will reduce our dropout numbers,” Centralia Superintendent Glenn Brown said. “We certainly feel that students need a high school diploma to gain the skills needed to be successful in life. That’s an important part to be played by Champion Academy.”
For students like Brandy Philips, who suffers from migraines, anxiety, hypoglycemia and a knee condition, the alternative programs offered at Champion offer a more flexible and less intimidating environment.
“I have what is called cluster migraines,” Philips said. “I have a whole bunch of different migraines at one time, one right after another.
“By the time I was done recovering from those, I’d already missed enough school that I couldn’t get caught up. I’d stress about it and start another group of migraines.”
Brandy said the structure of the academy makes it easier to deal with her health problems and work at her own pace. The independent study arrangement allows her to maintain her blood sugar and take breaks when a migraine starts. The relaxed atmosphere also lets her do schoolwork without the anxiety she suffered in the traditional school environment.
“At the high school, I had a hard time keeping up,” Brandy said. “I don’t function well in crowds. I have severe anxiety attacks and a couple of different health problems that kept me from functioning in the public high school.”
Brandy’s mother, Regina Phillips, is thrilled with her daughter’s progress at Champion Academy. The completion of Brandy’s education is important to Regina because it is something she never had.
Regina dropped out of high school at age 15 because of health problems and clashes with school administrators.
“(Brandy) has literally (gone) from being a failing student to getting straight A’s,” Regina said, joining Brandy at their kitchen counter. Brandy Philips and her twin brother, Brian, will be graduating in May 2006. The events will mark a poignant moment for the Philips’ family for several reasons: In addition to their mother’s dropping out of high school, the twin’s father, Kevin, and 18-year-old sister, Tasha, also dropped out of school. Their father, however, later earned his General Educational Development diploma.
Without Champion Academy, Regina Philips believes Brandy would have been forced to pursue a GED because of her frequent absences. To her, Brandy’s success means an opportunity for a good life.
“If you don’t finish high school, you can’t get a decent job anymore,” Regina Philips said. “You just can’t.”
Bobbie Tetley, the director of Champion Academy, said alternative schools are designed to meet the needs of students like Brandy.
“Here, where there’s a flexible environment, (Brandy) does so many hours that she’s so far ahead,” Tetley said. At the traditional high school, Brandy was unable to work ahead to plan for days when she would be out sick.
Planning for the Centralia program started four years ago when a committee of 60 parents developed long-range plans for the school district. The committee members felt an alternative school would ease Centralia’s dropout rate, which was around 4 percent last year.
Tetley, who joined the planning process just over two years ago, planned the curriculum to meet state standards. She traveled to Columbia’s Douglass High School and other alternative schools in Fulton and Moberly to look at their set-ups as models.
“I think from a school district’s point of view, (the idea) is to reduce the dropout rate,” she said. “That’s not only the school. That’s usually communitywide because no one benefits when there’s a large number of students who fail to graduate high school. That is a nationwide problem.”
Currently, 12 students are enrolled in Centralia’s program. These students, three of whom are enrolled in both the morning and afternoon sessions, take up 15 of the 20 available slots. Because space is so limited, school officials have to determine which students are most in need. They often look at variety of things, including accumulated credit hours and the likelihood of graduation to determine whether or not a student will thrive in the academy.
“We have districtwide, at-risk criteria,” Tetley said. “One or all of them could be in play.”
To be considered for the academy, students must fill out an application and write an essay explaining why they want to be in the school. Another form is completed by either a teacher or parent and discusses the potential benefits of the student joining the academy.
The applications are followed by an interview with the school officials, the Chamber of Commerce director and a community representative.
“They want to make sure that the people that are there want to be there and want to do well,” Brandy Philips said.
Columbia’s alternative school program has existed since 1967, when Eliot Battle created it to give pregnant and suspended teenagers a chance at a high school education. The program, called the Secondary Learning Center, expanded in the 1980s to help students who had difficulty in traditional classes. The center was moved to the Douglass Building in 1985 and renamed Douglass High School in 1993.
Douglass Principal Brian Gaub said he receives approximately 150 applications per year and has added as many as 40 students each quarter. The school has 187 students and helps combat Columbia’s dropout rate of 4.4 percent.
According to the Columbia school district’s Web site, Douglass has an average daily attendance rate of 75.7 percent, while the graduation rate has increased from 46.4 percent in 2000 to 50 percent in 2004.
Students interested in attending Douglass also apply and go through an interview process to evaluate if they will thrive in the alternative environment.
Simon Hall, 18, and a senior at Douglass, said the school has helped him get his education back on track.
After struggling with his grades at West Junior High, Hall heard about Douglass from his brother-in-law, Charles White.
Hall said his enrollment at Douglass has helped him earn enough credits to be eligible for graduation in May.
“I came here my freshman year, and ever since I’ve been pretty much on task and making better grades and all,” Hall said. “This is a better place for me, and I’m going to graduate from here.”
Smaller classrooms and more teacher attention were benefits that Douglass parent Kevin Bryant liked. Bryant’s son, Landon Boone, 14, is a ninth-grader at the school.
An athletic man with a welcoming smile, Bryant sat on a blue bench and discussed the school after sharing a home-cooked meal with teachers and parents at Douglass’ annual open house.
He likes Douglass because the faculty has made his son excited about learning and the attention has improved Landon’s grades.
“His grades at Oakland were not bad, but we felt like he could do a little better,” Bryant said. “We’re happy, and I know he’s happy because I’m not always on him about his grades.”
Back at Champion Academy, Brandy Philips, a self-confessed bookworm who considers government one of her least favorite subjects, said the school’s relaxed atmosphere makes it easier to get her work done, but that does not make the work easy.
“Some people may think it’s cake,” Philips said. “But it’s not. You have to have determination to stick through it. Some of the lessons are more difficult (than what I had at the other high school).”
While they work in a different environment from that of a traditional high school, students enrolled in an alternative education are still required to complete core classes to receive a diploma. For this reason, Brandy appreciates the one-on-one attention that director Bobbie Tetley, along with her colleague, Neva Wilkerson, provide.
“If we need help, we can ask Mrs. Tetley or Mrs. Wilkerson about it and most of the time they can explain it,” she said. “If they can’t, they find somebody who can or they’ll look it up.”
Both Douglass and Champion tailor their programs to meet the needs of their students. Students in both schools receive one-on-one attention and work closely with teachers. Douglass also offers a work-study program that allows students to gain experience in a professional environment. Students at Champion can also gain business experience through the Vocational Work Program, a program that allows them to work in local businesses while taking classes. J
Brandy does not yet have plans after she graduates, but she does have an interest in calligraphy, crafts and writing poetry.
“I don’t know what I want to do,” she said. “I just know I want to have my options open.”