Choices not circumstances: School focuses on intervention

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CROSSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The faculty and staff at The Phoenix School go to great lengths to ensure their students stay on track to graduation, with personalized instruction and intervention the norm.

This past year, they've seen the fruits of their labors, earning top scores on the 2017-'18 school report card for improvement in the graduation rate — up from 68.6 percent to 88.98 percent.

"I hope we can hold to it this year," said Principal Stephanie Barnes. "I figure that will fluctuate with the students, but it's always going to be a goal to have our graduation rate up there."

With an enrollment of about 70 students each year and serving grades 10-12, each point on the Phoenix School's graduation rate is more than just a move toward a state target. It's a student — a student the faculty and staff have worked with, in some cases pleaded with, to come to school regularly and finish their high school diploma.

In the hallway, a bulletin board promotes the #hassleforthetassel, with mortar boards and tassels signifying a senior's steps toward graduation — and students watch it closely, questioning any changes.

Students must apply to attend the school and go through an interview and selection process.

"It's all based on need," Barnes said. "Is it because of mental health or anxiety issues in the larger schools? Are they at risk of failing and not graduating?"

Phoenix accepts students in grades 10-12. Students need to complete 22 credits for graduation — the same requirements as students at other high schools minus credits in elective courses and foreign language.

"It's all core classes," Barnes said.

Barnes said many students struggle with attendance, and many don't read on grade level or have repeated grades in the past or jumped from school to school to school. Some students don't always understand their part in the educational process. But through a combination of student maturity and ongoing concern and support by the faculty, sometimes the switch just flips, Barnes said, and the students are ready to do their work and come to school.

"I think that's why we're here," she said.

State Designation

While many school systems have programs similar to The Phoenix School's high school, Cumberland County is unique because the school is independent of the other high schools. At other schools in the state, students remain enrolled at their home school.

"These kids are my kids," Barnes said. "They are enrolled under my name."

That independence allows the school to qualify for state and federal funding, independent of the other two high schools. But the school doesn't have the large population of students who can mitigate lower scores on tests. The school has struggled with its academic benchmarks, scoring a 1 in value-added assessment on state exams. This means the students grew less in a school year than the state expected.

The school has been designed as a Comprehensive Support and Intervention School by the state.

"We do not want to be a 1. We are working our way back up. But we are also an at-risk high school," Barnes said. "We are working to overcome that, but we're fighting a lot of other battles."

More than half the students at Phoenix repeated at least one grade level, and 61.2 percent attended multiple schools during their elementary years. One student attended 11 different elementary schools. About 20 percent attended three to eight different high schools before enrolling at The Phoenix School. Over 40 percent have been either homeschooled or placed in the custody of the Department of Children's Services during their school career.

All the students have experienced at least two Adverse Childhood Experiences; almost 15 percent have self-harming or suicidal behaviors; and almost 12 percent don't live at home or are homeless. More than 10 percent have a deceased parent.

But Barnes and staff dive in to help the students overcome these challenges. The school's motto is "Choices, not circumstances determine our success," and they're starting to see improvements.

"I want anybody who wanted to come to see, we do have school every day and we work hard," Barnes said.

Some students have even said they wanted to return to their home schools.

"But I told them when they interviewed, 'We're small, we're a family and you've got more eyes on you,'" Barnes said.

New Programs

The school has launched a partnership with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology to allow students to earn their CNA license. They can attend TCAT in the mornings and complete their high school work in the afternoons.

"We have a little more wiggle room because everything is individualized," Barnes said.

Barnes also considers each student's work, family and education commitments when developing schedules each year.

"Each schedule is done individually to make sure they're graduating within the four years and a summer requirement," Barnes said. "That begins when they enter ninth grade, no matter if that was in another state."

Barnes has implemented a number of reward programs to help promote attendance, completing classwork and good behavior. This includes Power Hour lunches. Students have time each day they can use however they like — provided they are caught up on all school work. They can enjoy sitting outside on a nice day, taking part in special activities in the family and consumer science classroom, or even catching up on their zzz's with a quick nap in the corner of the media center.

"It's helped with afternoon attention and discipline," Barnes said. "And we're small enough to make that work."

The school has also launched a number of special-interest groups, like photography, crafts, and sign language.

She surveyed students to determine the types of rewards that work best with each student. Some seek adult approval — a pat on the back and a "good job!" Others want consumable rewards like a soda or special food.

The school has improved its attendance rate this year. There were 17 students with perfect attendance in August and September.

When students aren't in school, Barnes goes and gets them.

"I have an Uber," she laughs. "I wait on them to get ready. I talk with their parents. I want them to know it's important to me for them to be here, so we go the extra mile."

She uses a school vehicle and goes with the appropriate personnel.

"They've learned that if they miss the bus that they can call and one of us will come," Barnes said.

Teachers are using different types of classroom instruction and are moving away from lecture-style lessons.

"Sitting and listening to someone talk is not the way they learn," Barnes said.

They're also working to align the curriculum to state standards and to encourage more reading across the campus, reading articles online and typing articles.

"Some come in and say they just want paper and pencil," Barnes said. She doesn't give in. "In the real world, you don't just use paper and pencil anymore."

They're also utilizing a number of online programs to provide differentiated instruction and making a concerted effort to transition to online submission of assignments, similar to what students will experience in college or post-secondary education.

"I have some teachers that's out of their comfort zone, as well," she said.

Reading is a significant area of concern. August testing found 60 percent of students scores below the 25th percentile in reading, and 34 more were under the 49th percentile.

"We're focusing the entire building on reading," she said.

The students struggle with the ACT test, but the school is making progress, Barnes said, noting last year seven scores 19 or higher.

The school also added a full-time School Resource Officer, funded by the city of Crossville, and a full-time school nurse.

The Phoenix Campus

Barnes isn't just responsible for the 70-some high school students served at The Phoenix School. The campus is home to six additional specialized programs serving Cumberland County students:

?Baby Birds Daycare — serves the children of Phoenix High School students providing free daycare services provided the parent is in attendance at school.

?Baby Birds Learning Center — The Tennessee Early Intervention System partners with the school system to serve developmentally delayed children ranging from 18 months to 3 years in age. Students attend Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Fridays, the staff makes home visits to help parents assist their children in their homes.

?Cumberland County Alternative Schools — these classrooms serve middle school students or high school students, each with a dedicated teacher. Students are assigned to the alternative school for a set period of time and the teacher works with their home school to ensure students stay on track with their academics.

?Special Day School — this program serves students in grades 6-12 who have been diagnosed as emotionally disturbed.

?Transition Academy — students who have graduated with a special education diploma may attend classes until age 22. The academy provides work-based learning programs to build job skills and life skills, like grocery shopping or banking.


Information from: Crossville Chronicle,

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