Donning a cap and gown and walking alongside one's peers to mark the culmination of 13 years of education is every high-schooler's goal.
Yet social anxiety, an inability to focus or keep up with the expected pace, a lack of self confidence or any number of other reasons can keep some students from experiencing success in high school. That's what Huntley Community School District 158's new alternative school aims to fix.
The Huntley High School Alternative School, which began in January, helps students who are falling behind with earning credits to catch up, providing them individualized instruction in a smaller classroom setting, and extra social-emotional support.
"Kids aren't there because of discipline issues," said Danyce Letkewicz, Huntley High School associate principal. "Kids that are experiencing anxiety or school avoidance ... it's kind of a wide variety. Some kids just never fit in the standard model of a high school, some have severe ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), severe anxiety or don't love high school."
Such students tend to fall through the cracks in a traditional setting like that of Huntley High, which has more than 3,000 students, she added.
"They needed something more flexible," Letkewicz said.
In a shorter day than that of a typical high school, students spend up to five hours daily in morning and afternoon sessions taking classes required for graduation -- English, mathematics and science -- and a wide selection of electives at an off-site center. The biggest difference is students get to direct how long they work on each subject.
"They are in control. They can go as fast as they want," Letkewicz said. "There is a social worker who supports social-emotional needs, as well as college and career planning."
District 158 is the latest to embrace the alternative school model.
Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 is launching a program this fall at a Carpentersville elementary school for students struggling with emotional traumas and behavioral issues to improve their academic performance and overall health.
Last fall, Elgin Area School District U-46 launched its DREAM Academy -- a revamped alternative program for students struggling in conventional classrooms. That program also provides smaller class sizes of 15 to 20 students and an array of teaching strategies aimed at helping them develop social-emotional skills and eventually return to their home school to graduate with their peers.
Of the 28 students -- 26 in high school and two in middle school -- who participated in District 158's program last spring, two graduated while several others saw measurable increases in academic achievement, credit recovery, attendance, and personal fulfillment, officials said.
"It has been unbelievably successful for the first semester that we opened," Letkewicz said. "Their confidence level has increased dramatically. They are experiencing success for the first time. (In some cases) they don't need to take their anxiety or ADHD medication. It's given these kids an opportunity ... (faith) that there's hope for them."
Students choose to be in the program, usually through encouragement from school counselors and peers who have gone through it. They stay in as long as they need and finish their high school career at the center. The program also is open to middle school students as long as they are behind in credits.
This fall, District 158 expects 30 students to start the year in the alternative program.
"It is absolutely on a case-by-case basis," Letkewicz said. "We really want to make sure that we are sending the right students to this program who are going to be successful and need the extra level of support that it offers. And they need to show that we've tried interventions here that haven't been successful."