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Building a Successful Alternative High School Program Through Love, High Expectations, and Restorative Education

Building a Successful Alternative High School Program Through Love, High Expectations, and Restorative Education

What does it take to build a successful alternative school that serves students who are underserved by the community? When the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District (Uvalde CISD) leadership team and school board needed to do more to support students who were not successful in the traditional school environment, they decided to do just that. To get the project started, Dr. Hal Harrell, Uvalde CISD superintendent, turned to his former student, Dr. Hector Lopez.

“Dr. Harrel way back in the day was my principal at the alternative school in Uvalde, and so I was able to come full circle in the process,” explained Dr. Lopez. “And so, this is a really personal and passionate part of our mission.”

With the support of the district, Dr. Lopez and his team built Crossroads Academy High School “around an ethic of care for the whole student in order to support the academic needs of at-risk students toward the completion of a high school diploma.” It hasn’t been an easy process, but the journey has definitely been rewarding for Dr. Lopez, principal of Crossroads Academy, and his staff. The educators set a goal of graduating 20 students by the end of the first semester; they graduated 19 before the winter holidays, and the 20th student earned her diploma in January.

At the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) Midwinter Conference in Austin, Texas, on January 28, 2020, Dr. Lopez and Miranda Dvorak, counselor at Crossroads Academy, shared their experience building an alternative school from the ground up so that their story might help other districts looking to build similar programs and so that they could add to the narrative about alternative schooling. In this blog post, we’ll feature a summary of the key takeaways from that presentation, and you can watch the entire session embedded below.

 

Develop a Great Team

The first person hired to join the Crossroads Academy team was the counselor, Miranda Dvorak. She had a passion for working with marginalized student groups, and she and Dr. Lopez worked in tandem to get the school started.

Conduct a Campus Needs Assessment

To guide Crossroads Academy through the planning process, Dr. Lopez and his team conducted a campus needs assessment in which they asked themselves three questions:

  1. What are the most critical factors to consider for student success at Crossroads Academy?
  2. How can the school support the teachers and staff to best meet those critical factors?
  3. How well does the staff understand alternative school accountability in Texas?

The answers to these questions helped the educators develop operational guidelines and identify areas in which they needed to learn more in order to move forward successfully.

Rally Behind a Common Mission

Crossroads Academy subscribes to a three-part mission: love, high expectations, and restorative education. Through this mission, educators take a holistic approach to helping each child achieve success.

Love

The staff at Crossroads Academy works to celebrate students on a daily basis for their achievements, big and small. Educators do this to show the students that they truly care about the work that they do and to help students develop a sense of accomplishment and stay motivated on their paths.

“We are trying to break a narrative—sometimes break an internalized stigma that students feel having gone through some challenges, having left school, sometimes having taken a path that’s not the straight and traditional path,” explained Dr. Lopez.

Crossroads Academy holds a graduation ceremony for each student who graduates and also hosts impromptu celebrations every time a student finishes a semester course and earns a half credit. Teachers and students surround that student to congratulate the success.

“Along with all the success, the 20 graduates, the credits that are achieved on a daily basis, there are tons of challenges that we encounter,” said Dr. Lopez. “Those celebrations do a lot for the spirit of the staff, as well as the spirit of the students to keep them motivated and moving forward.”

High Expectations

Crossroads Academy utilizes Edmentum Courseware as its core curriculum, and teachers customize the courses to meet the needs of their students for a personalized experience.

“We work with the program [Courseware] to tailor it so it’s not ever just a student and a computer,” said Dr. Lopez.

Utilizing online learning also allows students to take courses beyond what Crossroads Academy would be able to offer due to its small staff.

“There are some limitations with our size, and that’s where technology really comes into play,” explained Dr. Lopez. “There are courses that we just cannot teach, and so Edmentum has done really well to create a program that seamlessly brings an instructor into our classrooms. We have a student that is taking Latin, and we wouldn’t otherwise be able to offer a course like Latin and just some of those particular courses that you don’t see on the general curriculum that maybe are on a pathway that a student might arrive to our campus with.”

As students work through their courses, they are free to work in the classroom where they feel the most comfortable. Each teacher at Crossroads Academy has a subject-area specialty, but the teachers also serve as mentors to students. Therefore, students sometimes complete coursework in their mentor teacher’s classroom, and sometimes in the classroom of the teacher who specializes in the subject they are working on. Either way, students receive the help and support they need to master the content.

“We want everyone who graduates from Crossroads Academy to be viewed as someone who has done their work in learning,” said Ms. Dvorak.

Restorative Education (Beyond Restorative Circles)

Educators at Crossroads Academy have adopted a number of restorative education practices to build strong student-to-teacher and student-to-student relationships. This is evidenced in the frequent success celebrations, in the mentor program, and in the ways that Dr. Lopez and his staff proactively connect with their students’ families.

“This is not a nine-to-five type job; this is a 24-hour job,” said Dr. Lopez. “Every one of our parents that signs up for our program gets my card, my access, my home number, our constant communication, and we do get calls; we get calls at two, three in the morning on Saturday, Sunday. That to me is exciting and kind of keeps us fueled in what we’re doing. Our restorative goes above and beyond that idea of just a circle.” 

Take Care of the Staff

Many students at Crossroads Academy have experienced a significant amount of trauma in their lives, even more than the staff had anticipated. To help teachers combat the emotional fatigue that comes with trauma-informed teaching, the staff makes a concerted effort to foster a sense of community and take care of each other.

“Being empathetic with them [students] also means that we as a staff have to take care of ourselves,” said Ms. Dvorak.

Through all of the challenges of starting this new program and working to help students who have experienced difficulties to get back on a path to a stable and successful future, the staff at Crossroads Academy keeps a positive outlook because the educators know that what they are doing is helping students and changing lives.

“We want to make sure that our school is their safe zone—our school is their happy zone; it's a place where they can develop and build trust, and so that's really how we move forward,” said Dr. Lopez.

“It has been a phenomenal journey that fills us with joy every day,” said Ms. Dvorak.

Interested in learning more about how schools are implementing innovative methods to help at-risk students thrive? Check out the blog post How Restorative Grading Practices Are Taking Credit Recovery to the Next Level.

regina.waddell's picture

Regina Waddell is a marketing manager at Edmentum and over the past 8 years has helped both educators and Edmentum employees learn how to successfully implement technology in the classroom. Before her time at Edmentum, Regina spent seven years teaching; two years helping students increase their scores on college entrance exams in the private sector, and five teaching bilingual education in Dallas, TX. Regina holds a BBA from Austin College and an M.Ed in Educational Leadership and Policy from the University of Texas at Arlington.