Mark Mugambi came to the U.S. from Kenya and enrolled in a traditional high school—but left after a week.
The school, he says, was too crowded, too anonymous. “I felt like, no, I couldn’t do it. There was too much going on, too many people...It was all new to me, so I was kind of afraid.”
Jordan McDonough attended a traditional high school for two years—but it wasn’t a good fit.
“I started noticing I was falling behind, really was not going to school ...not doing my homework or anything.”
“From there, I took a good year off,” says the young mother of twins. “I went off the radar and was just out of school.”
All three of these young adults needed a new approach if they were going to jumpstart their stalled high school careers and earn a diploma.
They needed an educational setting where they wouldn’t get lost in a big crowd, a setting that would allow them to develop a real relationship with teachers, a place where they could focus on their first steps to career or college.
They found that place at Anoka-Hennepin Technical High School.
This small alternative program of 150 to 200 students serves young adults, ages 18 to 21, who have “just a tiny bit of high school left to do and they are really ready to launch into their careers,” says Principal Nancy Chave.
Location and mindset
Alternative programs are nothing new in public education. Educators are innovative people, and most school systems look for strategies that meet the unique and diverse needs of their students.
The 38,000-student Anoka-Hennepin School District is no different. As the largest school system in Minnesota, the district serves 13 suburban communities north of Minneapolis. It offers a variety of special programs and campuses for students, including another nearby technical school program.
What makes Technical High School noteworthy is both its location and mindset: Operating in a handful of classrooms in one corner of a community technical college, the high school allows older students the opportunity to complete their graduation requirements—but it also opens up possibilities for what comes after high school.
The hope—and the goal—of the program is that students will be inspired and engaged by the opportunities created by the school’s location at the technical college, Chave says. Students walk the same hallways as college students and have access to the college library and other resources, including daycare services. They can enroll in college courses as electives at no cost.
“When students are acclimated to the school and see other students pursuing EMT [emergency medical technician] or welding or automotive or electrician sorts of jobs, they can see themselves in that position,” she adds. “The students can actually see themselves as college graduates.”
Finding a way to motivate students—to engage them in their learning—is always key when working with students who are academically behind or struggling with a traditional school setting, says school board Chair Tom Heidemann.
“We had to look at what would it take to really get these kids engaged and motivated....A lot of kids we know love the hands-on learning that’s practical, [and] it’s amazing how you can embed academics into the courses, and you can achieve all your objectives.”
The school’s success also benefits from the students targeted for this program. These are more mature students who, despite their past struggles in school, remain motivated to complete their education and improve their prospects for the future, says Superintendent David Law. These students aren’t being dragged back to school.
Many of them only need six months to a year of classes to graduate, he says, but while some simply didn’t do well in a traditional school setting, other students saw their education derailed by “something that’s happened in their lives.”
That something may have been a medical issue or a family crisis, he says. The family may have moved repeatedly in search of employment, for example, or a student may have dropped out to seek a job and financially support his or her family. In the case of Mugambi, he interrupted his education in Kenya to spend time with his terminally ill mother before her death.
Another student, Law recalls, moved to the district from out of state. She was two credits shy of graduation but pregnant, and issues of transportation and day care were significant obstacles to returning to school. A traditional high school simply wasn’t a good fit for her.
So, she enrolled at the Technical High School, he says. “She had her baby. They have child care here. She took her courses...and, at the same time, started taking her nursing pathway.”
The student later told Law she had dreaded returning to high school, but by the time she completed her coursework in the program, she already was employed in the medical field.
“She was launched,” Law says. “She went from feeling like, ‘I’m behind my peers and in tough shape’ to ‘I’m proud of where I’m going.’”
Teacher, the ‘no. 1 thing’
College opportunities are a powerful motivator—but these students still could have been lost in the anonymity of a postsecondary campus. The students themselves say that what’s helped them stay the course is the educational setting the high school provides: smaller classes, credit recovery, individualized schedules, and—perhaps most importantly—teachers who get to know and support them.
While attending traditional high schools, they say, they found many teachers simply didn’t have the time or interest to develop a relationship with them—or to provide any real support.
“My original high school didn’t give me enough help,” says student Cody Adams, who adds that enrolling at Technical High School “was the best decision ever.” In the past, he says, teachers “didn’t really reach out to me. They just kind of said, ‘All right...you’re just going to pass all your grades and kind of go from there.’”
McDonough also felt disengaged at his old high school, but his attitude changed upon enrolling in the program.
“The teachers are the No. 1 thing,” says the former dropout, who now is looking to pursue a criminal justice career. “When I came here, [the teachers] were really welcoming...and really pushing me.”
The faculty understands how its role—and the individual help they provide—are critical to these students, says social studies teacher Michael Doyle.
“I don’t want to knock teachers in other places, but we’re very respectful to students. We understand their needs, and we treat them like adults. The kids are over 18, and so we hold them accountable but we give them direction, and I think they appreciate that.”
Companies lining up
As it happens, Technical High School is the right program, in the right place, at the right time. The economy in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area is booming, and the region is home to many manufacturers looking for motivated, trained employees.
“We have manufacturing jobs—precision manufacturing jobs—that just aren’t getting filled right around us,” says Jeffrey McGonigal, associate superintendent for secondary schools. Local employers, he adds, “are very excited about the work that we’re doing in the high school.”
So much so, adds Heidemann, “that the companies are lining up to hire these kids immediately when they leave the school.”
No one sees Technical High School, however, as a school-to-work program. “I would never tell anyone not to go get a four-year degree,” Doyle says. “But the reality is two-year technical degrees right now are huge. They pay a good wage. You’ve got employers knocking on the door after a year trying to get these [trained students] to come to work.”
The school’s success also depends on a faculty and staff determined to make a difference—and to put the hard work needed into the program, Doyle says.
“Being that it’s a smaller staff, we can bounce ideas off one another. We can discuss virtually anything. We can collaborate on student needs and, really, we get on the same page and do what’s best for students. Everybody here really cares about the students.”
The story of Technical High School underscores what Heidemann sees as one of the strengths of the school system: its culture—its mindset—of identifying ways to make students successful.
“That becomes what I would call the innovation factor...where our experts closest to the students—who really know the kids, really know what’s going to engage them—come up with the ideas.”
The school board has a role to play in this process, by encouraging this dedication and innovation—and then by ensuring the support is there for programs and staff, he adds.
“If you come forward with a great idea that’s backed with research, you’re going to get the funding from the Anoka-Hennepin school board, because we’re committed to 100 percent of our kids being career and college ready.”
The most important lesson of this alternative school is, perhaps, rather mundane—but one that almost every school leader would heartily agree with.
It’s important “not to write off groups of students who may not be traditional learners, because they are bringing things to the table that we may have missed,” Chave says. “These students have special gifts and talents that are not being tapped.”
Del Stover (email@example.com) is senior editor of American School Board Journal.