Five years after the Intersection began offering after-school programs in Columbia’s First Ward, the nonprofit organization is making plans to start a private school for at-risk children.
The details haven’t been worked out, and no firm timeline is in place, but the school would be based on the street school model and would be mainly for high school students who have problems beyond the classroom. It would be housed at the Intersection, a 4,200-square-foot youth and community center at Sexton Road and Garth Avenue.
Michelle Lindstedt, education director at the Intersection, said the intent is to see what can be done to help kids who are dropping out of high school because they lack the home support or the academic background to keep going. She and others decided that a school was needed by observing the kids who come to the Intersection’s after-school programs.
“You see teenage boys on bicycles circling the parking lot from one o’clock on, waiting for your 3 o’clock program to open and you’re like, ‘Why aren’t you in school?’ ‘Well, nobody woke me up.’ ‘Well how many days have you missed? Where’s your homework? What are you doing? Where are we going?’” Lindstedt said.
A street school is different from traditional public and private schools in that it focuses on things other than academics, such as developing a work ethic, spiritual growth or even learning that sometimes you have to get out of bed when you don’t want to.
Dana Battison, executive director of the Intersection, said street schools emphasize a mentoring approach to personal growth that she calls “whole person” development. It includes spiritual development, academics and job skills. The National Association of Street Schools is Christian-based, and the Intersection school would be, too.
Under the street school model, each class has fewer than 12 students, individualized curriculums and close adult supervision at a ratio of four adults per student.
The Intersection school would be meant for students who find themselves outside the public school system, including the district’s alternative Douglass High School.
“Our focus would be on that bunch: the dropouts, the nonattendees, the truants or the ones who are failing,” Battison said.
A steering committee, with members yet to named, would decide exactly how students are selected for the school.
“We wouldn’t want to pull kids from the Columbia Public School system,” Battison said.
Battison said prospective students would be evaluated based on risk factors such as: living at or below the poverty level, living in a single-parent household, having a family history of incarceration, having any kind of abuse in their background or failing in a normal academic setting.
“Kids who just want to be in a different school wouldn’t necessarily be accepted,” Battison said.
Like other street schools, the Intersection school would require students to sign a contract in which they agree to follow standards of behavior such as respect, nonviolence and academic rigor.
Both Battison and Lindstedt emphasized that race wouldn’t be a determining factor for admission. But they say the Intersection’s first priority is the First Ward, and because the First Ward has a large population of minority residents, a street school there would be likely to have a lot of minority students. But just as the Intersection’s after-school programs are open to any student in Columbia, the school would be, too.
After the Intersection’s staff and board decided they wanted to try to create a school, they shopped around for models. In March 2006, they went to Denver to see the original street school and learn more about it. That school began in 1985 with three students in the Denver living room of founder Tom Tillapaugh. The Denver street school model blossomed into the National Association of Street Schools in 1996, which now has more than 40 street schools throughout the United States, according to its Web site, streetschools.com. NASS has a three-year accreditation process.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave the association a $1.1 million grant in 2003 to replicate its model by opening 10 more schools nationally, according to the NASS Web site. The grant was part of a $31 million Alternative School Initiative the Gates foundation awarded to nine alternative school programs it deemed successful.
Battison and Lindstedt would be able to turn to NASS for nonfinancial help — mentoring, for example.
The hope is for the steering committee to meet for the first time this month, Lindstedt said. Her further hope is that a school at the Intersection will open as early as fall 2008. But, she emphasized, that date is not definite.