On an early September morning, the staff of Al Kennedy High School gathered in a room at the South Lane School District offices. The Sentinel had approached the district in the prior weeks about chronicling the teachers and students at Kennedy to tell the story of alternative education through the lens of those on the ground. District administrators thought it was a great idea. Kennedy staff had questions. Eight educators sat in a room with a newspaper editor and had a conversation. At the end, they’d come to an understanding: The truth is the truth and the kids come first. Over the course of the 2017-2018 school year, the Sentinel will tell the story of these educators and their students as they navigate a location change, funding gaps and the unfortunately true narrative that sometimes working hard isn’t enough and an education doesn’t fix everything. We’ll tell stories of triumph, tragedy and truth as the tribe at Kennedy makes the most with what it has in its continued effort to slingshot students up and over the barriers to progress through understanding, commitment and engagement while acknowledging the reality that some kids won’t make it.
It’s Christmastime at Kennedy.
Once upon a time, that meant a family dinner, prepared by students and staff in the kitchen of their old portable trailers in the footprint of the old high school. But Delight Valley isn’t the old portable trailers. Its kitchen is responsible for turning out six meals a day—plus snacks for a pack of hungry preschoolers and has little room for a casual, lighthearted and somewhat haphazard cooking parties meant to mark the start of the holiday season and the end of the first half of the school year.
So, on Dec. 14, in the minutes before winter break would see the school empty for two weeks, there weren’t several courses of food laid out on the cafeteria tables. But, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a party.
“Hey! Guys!” Kennedy Principal Halie Ketcher really likes Christmas. In Christmas leggings, a Christmas sweater and a necklace of flashing Christmas lights, she shouts over the restlessly excited chatter of approximately 40 students. They’re 30 minutes away from winter break and even closer to getting one of the Christmas presents Ketcher guards. Their conversations come to a California stop, some still rolling on. “Are you buying it for her?” “He’s not a super senior.” “We have to pay for Snapchat now because of that Internet stuff.” (The FCC voted earlier in the day to eliminate net neutrality).
One more shout from Ketcher and the road is clear.
It’s time to recognize outstanding students of the month and hand out presents: lotion, soda, candy, gloves, knick-knacks and gift cards that Ketcher warns are worth $5 each, encouraging students to repeat the amount back to her because she will not repeat herself.
Each month, Kennedy recognizes a student who has shown growth, determination, passion and persistence and for December, it’s Sophie. She’ll speak at the next South Lane School Board meeting as a reward. She’s nervous.
And while the celebration normally ends with a round of applause for students like Sophie, today is different. There’s a special announcement. There’s a new Kennedy graduate.
Nathaniel Mulhall will return this spring to walk with his class but today, he’s done. He’s completed all 75 credits required by the state of Oregon in time to qualify as a four-year (not five-year) graduate.
It’s easy to see the pride among his teachers and the excitement in his peers as the cafeteria explodes in congratulations for the boy in the back hiding under his hood.
The thing that’s a bit harder to single out though is what it took to get here, to this moment of jubilee because at Kennedy, things work a little differently.
Mulhall was part of the cohort group of students. It’s one of three options for students who choose Kennedy over the traditional Cottage Grove High School and most resembles a schedule one might find there. Students have different teachers and rotate classes throughout the day with a lunch period in between. But it’s only one option. Kennedy also offers a GED program and something called Odysseyware that can be combined with the cohort or GED program.
Danny Henson doesn’t teach Odysseyware or GED. No one does, really, in the traditional sense. He mans the language arts class and storytelling spark--a unique component of the cohort model.
At Kennedy though, not everything is black and white and so Henson has students who are in Odysseyware class in the morning and spend the afternoon with him. It’s part of what draws some students to this school: the ability to choose and receive dedicated time from their instructors.
In his storytelling spark students explore different ways to tell stories and the fundamentals that build narrative. They complete assignments that ask them to interview their favorite characters from their favorite stories. Who are the character’s friends and family? Where were they born? Where do they go when they’re angry? What’s their favorite possession? Some questions are obvious, others, students have to use their storytelling chops to create the answers.
When they indulge in typical high school griping over assignments, he refocuses their attention and doesn’t let anyone off the hook.
It’s part of Henson’s teaching style; reassurance with a dash of tough love.
It’s why his language arts class can descend into a conversation about space travel and veer back to align with a discussion on topic sentences and thesis statements. Students get two-minute cell phone breaks and when they work independently to ferret out key terms, they can do so while listening to rock music from Henson’s computer or their own through borrowed headphones.
“I have one student who says, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’ Every time.” Henson said of one of his combination kids. “They do it and say, ‘I did it’ and I tell them, ‘Yes, you did it, just like last time. I always look at it as a choice. At Kennedy, it’s this microcosm of choices,” he said.
Odysseyware is a computer-based program taught by one teacher who reviews student work and holds a weekly check-in. It requires 15 hours a week broken into three hours a day, Monday through Friday. It affords students up to six credits a term, two less than the cohort model.
“It’s for kiddos who are behind, to get them up to speed,” Ketcher said. “Ideally, we want to cycle them out of Odysseyware and into the cohorts.”
It’s an ideal program for students who don’t quite fit into the cohort model due to a variety of circumstances that range from having anxiety to simply being behind in their schooling. They can catch-up and acclimate to school again while earning credits that will add up to the golden number for a diploma: 75.
A key in the mission of Kennedy is to get students to be at school. It often feels getting attendance up is not just half the battle, but is the entirety of the war. So after former principal Mike Ingman and Ketcher attended a conference about students pursuing what ignites them – their spark – the school took the idea and ran with it.
To get students excited about what they are learning, it starts with the teachers. They focus on what kids are passionate about and, with input from the students, create a class that meets twice a week based around a topic. The teacher, in the role of a facilitator, guides the conversation and lessons to where the students are interested in going.
The sparks filled a gap for students who had bemoaned the fact that Kennedy offered no elective courses. In an effort to break up the steady rhythm of the school day these classes let students dive into something they are interested in. This year, those interests include a green team, crafts, music, basketball and storytelling.
“The whole idea is it was kind of part of our thing to increase student attendance. If you are doing something that kind of interests you, you’re more likely going to come to school,” said Jessica Martinez, the GED instructor at Kennedy and also the leader of the green team spark.
“If you’re doing something you like, you’re more likely to like push through those things like challenges and not be like, ‘Ugh, I give up. It sucks.’ And so you know, it has a lot of really good things because one it’s fun, two it helps you kind of develop those skills and gives you a reason to want to be here.”
“At the first meeting I cried"
With the spirit of reducing, reusing and recycling guiding their way, the green team at Kennedy gets to work. This group is part-custodian, part-researcher and part-teacher all in the pursuit of sustainability. During this spark period, the students are busy. They collect the recycling and compost from around the school but are also have a whiteboard dedicated to building their new composting bins. But whatever the work is, it’s trying to accomplish something.
“I knew I was excited about it and that our kids really like to do hands-on projects,” said Martinez.
“They point the ship and I’m like, okay, let’s go. Okay, let’s do it.”
Last year the ship was steered towards getting the school into a composing program that has only grown since arriving at the new Kennedy.
“I knew going into green team we were going to be starting a compost program but you phrase it and frame it in a way that’s their idea. Kind of,” said Martinez.
After completing a trash audit that had students collect all the garbage from one school day and weigh it (“It’s really gross and horrible,” added Martinez) the findings were that there was a large amount of food waste that could be composted.
“That was the big need. I knew that was the big need, but they said, ‘Hey! That’s the biggest need.’ Yeah what can we do? ‘We can compost.’ Alright, how are we going to do it?”
This year the school has two compost bins but the green team is in the process of designing a compost system that will feature worms to help break down the waste. But with the addition of worms, the students of Kennedy are thinking much bigger about what animals that they want on school property.
“’We want to get chickens again here.’ And then they’re like pigs, goats. Because we have a lot of space but I’m like whoa, back it up, we’re going to get worms – we’re going to do the worm thing first because that’s our priority,” said Martinez.
And before these additional animals, the next step will be bees that will be coming to the school as soon as this winter. Kennedy used to house bees and they are returning to their old ways this year. A local beekeeper from Urban Honey will be bringing beehives to the school that the students will get a chance to work on and learn from.
Students with the green team have also been involved with Our Future Oregon. The Our Future project is run by the Eugene non-profit Partners for Sustainable Schools (PSS) and works to get students around Lane County to focused on sustainability. Each month a few students head to Eugene where they meet with students from other schools and discuss how they can continue to grow.
“At the first meeting I cried,” said a proud Martinez.
“It’s really neat to have the kids go to those meetings, learn stuff from other schools and teach other schools what we’re doing and have them be impressed.”
Learning on the court
From learning about martial arts to planning a fishing trip to shooting half-court shots: this is life in David Heritage’s spark.
“For about six weeks the kids stayed interested in martial arts. At that point the general consensus was to play basketball most of the time,” said Heritage, a math and science teacher talking about his ever-evolving spark. “And therefore, because they had the same goals as far as getting the kids out and exercising and stuff like that, I decided that it would be just fine for us to play basketball.”
The staff at Kennedy sees the fluidity of the spark not as a detriment but as a great asset to these programs. The ability to find what students are interested in is the end-all-be-all. And without this ability to adapt the class would not be outside on a 40 degree December day playing basketball.
Kennedy’s outdoor basketball court, like most things at the school, deviates from the norm. The small court, with its wooden roof that allows it to be played on all-year long, features a three-point line just a step away from half-court and is begging for a game of full-court pickup to be played on it. When the students play, they shoot full-court shots and are not concerned with the nuances of form or defense. Their games are played with Lonzo Ball’s confidence and Lavar Ball’s athleticism and it is clear the
main goal of not being in a classroom is achieved.
“The goal is – with spark – is to get the kids an opportunity to do what they want to do and so as long as it has academic value,” said Heritage.
“The more we can get the kids engaged, the more effective it is to reach our goal.”
Inside a classroom, less than a three-point shot away from the hoop outside, three kids wait in line for a glue gun. Despite Vickie Costello’s best efforts to make it to the store during lunch to pick up an extra one, the kids will have to share if they want to finish their Christmas centerpieces.
It’s the latest project for the crafts spark that has shrunk in recent weeks but allows students the freedom to be creative, pick their projects, and express themselves.
Today, they’re doing that by arranging pinecones and candles and berries on sheets of wood to give out as gifts. Earlier this year, they made life-sized silhouettes using their classmates and black paper. Still to come, a 40” by 60” bear to be hung in the school’s gym.
“It’s funny, if you go to the school district and look at all of the other school mascots, they’re all in the cat family,” Costello said. “But Kennedy is the bear, we’re different.”
It’s true, Kennedy is different. At Cottage Grove High School, art students restore carousel horses for a community project but they don’t trace the life cycle of Chinook salmon my monitor a tank of eggs like they do in Costello’s crafts spark.
“I’m crafty,” Costello said, “but not a native artist.” So, she seeks help from others and like all other spark instructors, lets students lead the way.
Wood planked walls curve into the ceiling that catches the sounds of Kennedy’s gym. There’s no squeak of sneakers chasing after a basketball. Instead, cords and hesitant strumming of a learning guitar and the guiding bow strokes of a violin. It’s the music spark.
An AV projector sits under the basketball hoop and a whiteboard centers a group of tables. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” it asks.
On the other side of the half court line are six cafeteria tables with lunch ladies chattering between notes.
There’s a circle of guitars with sheet music laid down on drums and hardly consulted.
Instructor Matt Hall wanders the group, his violin tucked at his chin, his boots caked with dirt and his sweater vest just slightly askew. His hand comes up in between bow strokes to encourage three singers to project.
“Some say life will beat you down.
Break your heart, steal your crown.”
The skill levels vary from students who earn the praise of a veteran musician to those who have just picked up the guitar.
Like every other spark, music is dictated by students and Hall allows them to choose songs to work on, filling in where suggestions are lacking.
But when he sets his bow back to the strings, it’s impossible to tell whose suggestion this song was and what was disjointed, confusing chatter becomes a harmony of effort that finds a rhythm and fills the gym. It turns into a jam session between the cafeteria and whiteboard, just this side of half court.
“So I’ve started out, for God knows where.
I guess I’ll know when I get there.”
All five sparks fit into a 55-minute window in the cohort model. The rest of it is made up of language arts, social studies, math, science and health. Teachers hold court in the traditional way and students complete assignments but that’s where the comparison to a CGHS schedule ends.
Each cohort is made up of 15 students and is given a schedule. Every two weeks, that schedule changes. It’s called, the tumble.
“If you’re not a morning person and you have, say, math in the morning, we want to give them an opportunity to have math in the afternoon,” Ketcher said.
So while students may start the year with one schedule, they’ll end it having had nearly every combination of classes, which allows students the chance to do well in classes they may have failed at 8 a.m. Cohorts also allows students to meet state requirements by passing standardized tests or completing work samples.
And because the cohort model is the most structured, it means other programs can bounce in and out of it and the model itself is fluid.
On Mondays, an advisory period is taken out of the time allotted for spark. On Mondays and Fridays, 15 minutes from two cohort classes are given to students who work on crew in the cafeteria or around the grounds (for which they can earn one credit for every 64 hours worked) and on Wednesdays, there’s a trip for one cohort to a wetlands restoration site where they earn money that funds field trips (taken nearly every Friday), prom and t-shirts for the school.
This build-your-own-education model is uniquely designed for the students at Kennedy with the intention of graduating as many students as possible. But not everyone wants a diploma.
Attendance is a growing dilemma for schools across the state of Oregon, including CGHS and Kennedy. The spark program helps, but once a student turns 18, truancy laws that allow schools to fine students for missing class, are no longer relevant. Traditional GED programs used to be a way to lure students back in and advance them out into the world but changes to the test in 2016 made a GED harder to obtain.
“If a student has been out of school for two years and comes back for their GED, I don’t like to put them in the program,” Ketcher said, noting she’d rather place them in Odyessyware where they earn six credits a term while catching up on material that will help them pass the GED test.
Kennedy’s program attempts to reel in the attendance issue by making it mandatory for GED-seeking students who are eligible for the program by being at least 16-years-old, one year behind in credits and have taken geometry, algebra II and read at an 8th grade level.
Students who don’t have at least a 75 percent attendance rate are on their own when it comes to paying for the GED test, which costs $38. Practice tests cost $6. It’s an investment Ketcher said could span between $200 and $500 per student.
“We’ve never had a student who didn’t meet the attendance requirement pay for their own test,” Ketcher said.
By the time Ketcher calls the last number and the student chooses a gift, there’s still a few left over—along with trays of cookies and treats she desperately tries to give away and she’s presented with her own gift—one of the craft spark’s Christmas centerpieces. Teachers chat in groups with Christmas carols floating through conversations and the AV screen adorned with the Yule log courtesy of Youtube. There’s no bell signaling the end of the day, the end of the term, just students making a dash for the door and then, the bus with Ketcher following after them, her hands cupped to her mouth, shouting, “Make good choices!”