Feature stories

‘The best-kept secret’

Alternate learning centers help students who have been suspended

Math teacher Ilana Alexander at Fundamentals Academy, a short-term suspension siJonathan FickiesMath teacher Ilana Alexander at Fundamentals Academy, a short-term suspension site at the Brooklyn East Alternate Learning Center, works with two students on reducing complex fractions.

Art teacher Go Myung Choi of Park Place Academy, which receives students servingJonathan FickiesArt teacher Go Myung Choi of Park Place Academy, which receives students serving longer suspensions, believes art is therapeutic. She worked with students to create symbolic self-portraits. Math teacher Ilana Alexander gives a mini lesson on reducing complex fractions on the classroom smartboard. Then she circulates among her five high school students, answering their questions on algebra, trigonometry and geometry.

The wide range of math topics doesn’t faze Alexander. She makes jokes and keeps things upbeat and light.

This is no regular classroom. It is a class at the Brooklyn East Alternate Learning Center, one of five centers and 36 sites across the city where high school students are sent for instruction after they have committed an infraction that results in an out-of-school suspension.

These centers together form a carefully conceived safety net to ensure at-risk students get the support they need while not missing a day of instruction.

Mitchell Greggs, the assistant principal at Park Place Academy, a long-term suspension site, says the Department of Education’s alternate learning centers, with their small class sizes, specially trained staff and extra support, give students who have made a mistake at their home school the opportunity to change course.

“It’s the best-kept secret” of the school system, said Greggs. “I tell some students this might be the best worst mistake you ever made.”

Fundamentals Academy, where Alexander teaches, receives students serving shorter suspensions. Upstairs, the Park Place Academy takes in kids suspended for 90 days to a full school year. Together the two sites have 80 students, 11 teachers and two paraprofessionals. Two guidance counselors provide support, and the long-term site has a social worker.

“We have students for a short period of time, anywhere from five to 90 days, so we have to get to know them and reach them really quickly,” Alexander says.

Students can’t hide in the back in her class. “There is no back here. I can see everyone!” she says.

Chapter Leader Garry Paul says teachers hold daily advisory classes to work on cJonathan FickiesChapter Leader Garry Paul says teachers hold daily advisory classes to work on community building, punctuality and attendance, and handling stressful situations. The teachers at alternative learning centers must be prepared to teach any level — at the same time and in the same class. “My lessons are all differentiated,” said Alexander. “If I have a student who can’t do fractions, even if that’s 2nd-grade work, I’m going to make sure they learn and master fractions. I meet them at whatever level they’re at.”

The faculty at Brooklyn East Alternate Learning Center also shows sensitivity and patience in addressing the social-emotional issues confronting their students.

Garry Paul, the chapter leader at Fundamentals Academy, says teachers hold daily advisory classes to work on community building, punctuality and attendance and how to handle stressful situations without resorting to fights.

In addition, there are restorative circles held weekly and as needed to talk about issues as they arise and what students will do differently when they return to their home schools.

The intimate school size and class sizes, which can range from one to 13 students, provide the opportunity for staff to get to know the students and address their unique needs.

“We work very individually with students,” said Park Place guidance counselor Camela Singh. “There’s a lot of one-on-one attention to help them plan their academic career behaviorally and make improvements when they go back to their regular school or graduate.”

When a new student arrives, a guidance counselor will do an intake interview with the student and the student’s parents. Together with each student, the counselors create an academic and behavioral plan for the student’s time at the school. This plan is shared with the center’s teachers.

“I meet with students every day and greet them in the morning,” says Margaret Mottley, the guidance counselor at Fundamentals. “We get to see a change in the small time that they’re here, whether it’s a change in attitude or behavior.”

Saying he hated writing, a student refused to do any writing assignments when he first arrived at Park Place. He said his teachers taught him how to organize his ideas in an essay, a skill he hadn’t learned before. The 9th-grader discovered that writing enabled him to express himself in ways he never had before.

“Writing gives you a chance to set your mind free,” he said. “Now I do like to write a lot” — and he has a huge writing portfolio to prove it.

Melissa Lowery, a special education teacher at Fundamentals Academy, says the key to the alternate learning center’s success is its softer approach.

“Because of the small class size, we get to learn about each student,” she said. “When they walk through your door, they come in with a tough persona, but once you get to know them, that hard exterior melts away.”

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