Students find success in alt ed
Mustang High School students have another avenue toward graduation if they are not being successful in a traditional classroom. Housed at Mustang Education Center, the district's alternative education program, PASS (Partnership for Academic Student Success) is a haven and resource for up to 60 students at a time who need a different atmosphere, a different pace or more help. Of the 674 students who were eligible to walk across the stage at graduation, 59 graduated thanks to the PASS program.
Tawnya Merchant, a veteran teacher of 32 years, is the PASS facilitator. She said students must apply to be part of the program and go through an interview process. Only students who have the drive and determination to graduate are accepted and only 60 students can be in the program at a time.
Thanks to block scheduling, students have the opportunity to earn more credits and at a faster pace than in a traditional school setting.
"If it wasn't for this program, those kids would drop out of high school. They get behind in credits and they don't see a way out. At the high school they're limited to seven credits a year," Merchant said. "Here, we don't slow them down. They can work at home, through spring break, through Christmas break. If those kids are willing to work, then I'm willing to help them. Once the kids see how quickly a block goes by, it lights a fire under them."
Each block can be from 15 to 21 days with a morning class and an afternoon class. Math, science and history are book classes. English and electives are done online. If a senior needs a math class immediately and one isn't available, Merchant will put them in an online class. There is a certified teacher ready to help them in every classroom.
"There are always different situations for every kid," she said. "It's not black and white. It can't be because every student has different needs. We have kids who dropped out a year before and then we call them or a principal calls them and asks them to consider the alternative school. Some have a very bad home life. Some are working to support their family. One student who is homeless graduated this year."
Merchant is passionate about righting the misconception that alternative education for Mustang is where kids with serious behavior problems are sent. The PASS program isn't punishment; it's a privilege.
"Some schools are a lock-down type of place," she said. "That's not these kids. They're good kids who are down on their luck, who need someone to care about them and help them. I love these kids. I would take any of these kids home with me anytime, anywhere. They're good kids. They just happened to fall down on their luck and they need help. We're here to help."
Talynn Jaques was one of the students who wasn't behind in credits. She had never been in trouble in school, but she suffers from severe social anxiety and ADHD. Every side conversation in a classroom was such a disruption that she couldn't concentrate on her classwork.
"I couldn't focus and it was hard for me to make friends at the high school," she said. "I had my friends but I didn't really fit into anything. And I was held back so I was older than everybody I was around."
She grew to hate high school and everything about it. Each morning was a struggle not to cry when she woke up. Most mornings she lost the battle.
The PASS program changed everything.
"All I knew was that it could get me out of the place I hated. I had to get out of school. I had to graduate. I want to be a drug and alcohol counselor, not because I went through it but because I have a lot friends and people I like to help. My mom tells me I have 'projects.'"
In the new environment with no more than 60 high school students enrolled, Talynn thrived.
"It was quiet and everyone was focused. Even if you weren't focused you weren't talking. It helped everyone get done with school. They don't make you stay where you're supposed to be. Alt ed lets you move forward and move at your own pace but they will not let you get behind. Mrs. Merchant is paying attention to everybody."
In her junior year of high school, Talynn earned enough credits to graduate and walked across the stage with more than 650 others.
"The alt ed center is my success. It made me feel like I could do it. And the people there - the staff, the little kids - I like everything," she said. "They build you up and they tell you you can."
Although Meghan Reynolds didn't graduate, she's within one credit. At 19, she had been supporting herself for two years until a car accident kept her from work. She moved in with a relative, and enrolled in the PASS program last September. When her housing situation fell apart in February, she went back to Moore and started supporting herself again. The PASS staff sent a request out to the building, pre-kindergarten teachers included, and they gathered up a truckload of furniture and household items for her. They called the Moore school system trying to pave the way for her to enroll.
Merchant used Talynn's phone to call Meghan every morning for two months to make sure she didn't give up on her education.
"With Mrs. Merchant, you have no option but to succeed in life," Meghan said.
Logan was suspended his freshman year for smoking marijuana on campus. When he came back his sophomore year, he had one and a half credits, was listed as a freshman and was considering dropping out and getting a job. Craig Chestnut, an assistant principal at MHS, talked him out of it.
"He supported me and told me it wasn't the right choice," Logan said. "And then Mrs. Merchant set up an interview. The way they treated me, it made me feel like I needed to be better for myself and for the people around me."
He joined PASS in the second block of the 2015-2016 school year. He finished this year with 20 credits. Next year, he will earn two more credits from PASS and then attend Canadian Valley Technology Center to be a diesel mechanic. He's on course to be a 2017 graduate.
Logan has been clean for more than a year and a half. He hopes to be a motivational speaker some day.
"So many kids are in my shoes who don't have the support to get them up and out of it. Even though they do bad things, they're still good kids. They just don't have the support. Mrs. Merchant, she's been very helpful," he said. "I call her my grandma. She's always been there."
Just do it
Talynn offered parting advice for any student considering the PASS program.
"For anyone who even thinks about alt ed, turn in the application. Just turn in the application," she said. "There is already a 50 percent chance of you getting in and graduating early. For some people, if you can get done with it, you should. Move on with your life."