How U-46 alternative school will better help struggling students

  • Nathan Williams teaches an English class at Gifford Street High School in Elgin, an alternative school where leaders will try to provide more individualized attention this fall.

      Nathan Williams teaches an English class at Gifford Street High School in Elgin, an alternative school where leaders will try to provide more individualized attention this fall. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Senior Jennifer Gomez, 17, works in her childhood development class at Gifford Street High School in Elgin.

      Senior Jennifer Gomez, 17, works in her childhood development class at Gifford Street High School in Elgin. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Angela Hayes teaches a childhood development class at Gifford Street High School in Elgin.

      Angela Hayes teaches a childhood development class at Gifford Street High School in Elgin. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Area School District U-46 this fall is changing the focus of Gifford Street High School, the district's alternative school.

      Elgin Area School District U-46 this fall is changing the focus of Gifford Street High School, the district's alternative school. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/21/2016 5:34 AM

The focus of an Elgin alternative school is changing this fall to provide more individualized care for struggling students, officials said.

Gifford Street High School serves 180 high school and 30 middle school students who need help to catch up and graduate with their class.

 

Because credit recovery classes are offered now at all five district high schools, a school exclusively for that purpose no longer is needed, said Terri Lozier, Elgin Area School District U-46's assistant superintendent of secondary schools, instruction and equity.

Gifford Street will transform this fall to better accommodate students who are not flourishing in a traditional, comprehensive high school setting.

U-46's eight middle schools and five high schools collectively serve roughly 14,000 students.

"We are looking to re-format with a trauma-informed approach, knowing that there are a lot of things going on in a kid's life that sometimes don't allow them to learn," Lozier said. "What we would do is make it more interpersonal, where the teacher is guiding you, helping you develop a four-year plan. Some kids may have anxiety being in a huge building (compared to) working in a smaller setting where they are trying to individualize the help and support that is given to the students."

A full-time social worker is assigned to students going through traumas or difficulties at home. Officials also hope to partner with community agencies that can provide additional support, and in the future provide day care for students who have children but want to complete high school.

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What's new?

Elgin Area School District U-46 will change the focus of its alternative school this fall. Gifford Street High School, which now handles students in need of credit recovery, will transform into a school for students who are struggling in a traditional setting.
  Elgin Area School District U-46 will change the focus of its alternative school this fall. Gifford Street High School, which now handles students in need of credit recovery, will transform into a school for students who are struggling in a traditional setting. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

A committee of principals, teachers, social workers, and students will help develop the new school model, incorporating the trauma-informed care approach. It is being modeled after Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington, an alternative school specializing in educating traumatized youth, featured in the documentary, "Paper Tigers."

Gifford Street students who don't graduate at the end of this school year will be able to apply for admission to the new program and receive priority placement. Students may also elect to return to their home high school.

Officials expect enrollment will stay at about 180 students this fall and the population will reflect the same diversity makeup with a majority of Latino students. Class sizes will be smaller than a traditional high school classroom -- 24 students instead of between 30 and 36 at other district high schools.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"At some point I could see that we might need to expand, if people really like the more individualized setting," Lozier said.

The biggest change is that students now will have the option of applying to study at the school instead of being placed there.

"We will start with (targeting) students who are freshman that have already started to display that they are having difficulties," Lozier said. "And then current sophomores who have an established pattern of difficulty in school."

Some of the school's 25 full-time teachers, and additional support personnel will be displaced and likely allowed to transfer within the district, while those who wish to stay on must apply to be selected and then go through rigorous training on the new educational model, Principal Lourdes Baker said.

"Starting in May, once we have finalized the selection of the teachers that are going to be part of the new program, we are going to go through every training together as a team," said Baker, who comes from a counseling background. "Most of the training is going to be based on trauma-informed strategies."

All school staff will be trained on de-escalation techniques and dealing with students' social and emotional needs. Parental involvement also will be key so they too will receive training on skills necessary to help students' emotional and academic needs, she said.

Students might come from families going through financial problems or a single-parent background, without strong male or female role models to whom they can look for support, Baker said. Such students often can get overwhelmed in a high school with more than 2,000 students.

"The traditional setting is not for everyone," she said. "We're going to make sure we support them with the counseling, social work, mentors from the community ... it's a student that needs more of the close-knit family environment and that's what we want to provide."

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