U-46's revamped alternative school gives students hope
Math has been a struggle for Montserrat Perez ever since she started classes at South Elgin High School.
She failed it her freshman and sophomore years and is behind on credits to graduate on time, the 17-year-old junior from Elgin said.
Montserrat said she doesn't feel comfortable in a traditional school setting, couldn't connect with her teacher and didn't have many friends. "I get distracted easily in big classes," she said.
She now attends Elgin Area School District U-46's DREAM Academy -- a revamped alternative program for students struggling in conventional classrooms.
The academy, at 46 S. Gifford St. in Elgin, was launched this school year. It has 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. It replaces Gifford Street High School, the district's former alternative program, which largely focused on credit recovery courses that now are offered at each of the district's five high schools.
Prospective students were targeted last summer and given the option of joining DREAM, which stands for Dedication, Responsibility, Education, Attitude and Motivation. To be admitted, students must be enrolled at a U-46 high school and be referred by their home school with parental approval. A committee reviews the referral before accepting a student.
The academy has 120 students enrolled. They have the option of returning to their home school at the end of a semester or staying in the program for a maximum of two years. Students also can continue to play sports and join extracurricular activities at their home school.
"They are not losing any privileges," Principal Lourdes Baker said, adding that students are not being banished from school for failing classes. "They are gaining a support system here with us, and they have their extended family, which is their home school."
The academy's main hallway is decorated with banners reinforcing positive messages. Lockers are pasted with labels students chose for themselves describing who they are: courageous, energetic, fearless, awesome, smart, talented, respectful, proud, hopeful, brave, helpful and visionary.
"It's a positive, uplifting thing for them," said Aaron Butler, assistant principal and dean of students. "When you see it in the morning, sometimes it's a good reminder."
A typical school day begins at 9 a.m. with students being served breakfast on-site -- a majority come from low-income backgrounds and possible food insecurity.
The late start allows students the option of taking an elective course at their home school. Six of eight periods are dedicated to instruction, staff-student circles and a blended curriculum that includes small group instruction and online courses. Each class, and lunch, runs 55 minutes. The remaining time is reserved for planning meetings with teachers.
The circle time is when teachers and students get to know one another by sharing stories and building trust. The exercise helps students communicate better, Baker said.
"Students talk about what is bothering them. They take turns and talk about different situations, try to be there for each other and be each other's support," Baker said. "It's building their confidence, giving them the ability to know there is somebody in the building that cares for them. They are more open to asking for help."
Montserrat said the smaller class sizes and individual attention have helped her turn a failing grade to an "A" in math.
"I talk to the teachers more, and I have confidence that I didn't have in South Elgin," she said. "I actually speak up more than I did over there."
Montserrat chose "fearless" as her defining trait because she feels more confident about being able to graduate. "I'm going to stay here," she said.
A school social worker also is helping Montserrat deal with the emotional trauma of her parents' divorce.
Most of the academy's students are grappling with similar issues at home, which is why school employees take a trauma-informed approach.
Andres Bedolla, 16, a junior from Larkin High School, said his parents are going through a divorce, which affected his focus in school. He is four credits shy but hopes to make them up and return to Larkin for senior year.
"I used to be one of those kids who didn't really know what they want. I just wanted to impress people and fit in," said Bedolla, adding that the academy taught him to dream bigger and exceed his goals.
"DREAM Academy changed my life because it really showed me that no matter how hard life is, no matter how hard education gets, there's always a way to fix it.
"The key is resilience and to have hope, and to keep going no matter how hard it gets."