Eye on Education

Eco-friendly Atwater school welcomes tweens who messed up

A fresh-start school for tweens and teens who made mistakes gives adolescents a year to catch up in schoolwork and catch on to better life skills.

None of them planned on ending up there, said teacher Candy Moua, “but you came here and it all came together. You came to this room and became this team.”

Moua teaches up to 15 sixth- through eighth-grade students at Valley Community School in Atwater, a $19 million, solar-powered campus that opened in 2011. Pastel yellows and greens surround a central quad area, all the rooms shaded by solar panel overhangs.

The campus serves as many as 130 high school and middle school students from the northern section of Merced County through the county Office of Education. About 80 percent of them were expelled, with the remainder on the cusp or having other difficulties, said Principal Carrie Harkreader.

“A lot of kids leave here and go on and do great things,” Harkreader said. “It’s just that they hit a bump in the road.”

In Moua’s class, one student said he was caught with marijuana, another was in a fight, a third was a model student who brought firecrackers, fuses removed, to school one day, running afoul of anti-terrorism rules.

“If you have priors, they automatically kick you out, even if they’re lying,” volunteered an eighth-grader, sitting slouched in his seat.

The younger students at the school stay with one teacher all day, covering all subjects and working on finding better ways to manage the stresses and disappointments of adolescent life.

“It’s easier than moving around classes and getting bullied,” said seventh-grader Ethan Garcia, sitting bolt upright at the front of the class. “We’re just with the same teacher, so if you miss something, you can catch up.”

“It’s easy for me to oversee what have they completed, for them to make up work,” said Moua, a second-year teacher. She tries not to send work home unless she knows her student can get help there, she said.

To manage anger and defuse conflict, the school uses a restorative justice program called STRIVE, the letters standing for Safe, Trust, Respect, Inspiration, Vision and Encouragement.

To begin a mediation, the sparring parties fill out forms that ask what happened and how they felt, what the consequences were and, finally, “What do you think you need to do to make things right?” On the flip side, staff members (the teacher or principal) respond and make a recommendation.

Student and teacher sit down and talk things through. The form ends with a spot for both to sign or mark if they want to have more discussion on the issue. The process works for student arguments but also gives Moua a process to bring problems in class up for discussion.

“It allows us both to understand each other,” she said. “Once they sign it, the issue’s done. They go forward.”

The students, most with multiple principal visits to think back on, said they prefer this way – working through problems instead of automatically being sent to the office.

“It’s more how they pay attention to you and get to know you better, and the situation,” said Elijah Dinneen, in eighth grade.

583 Number of Merced County students enrolled in alternative education settings provided by the Merced County Office of Education in 2014-15, 1 percent of the county’s students.

Individual attention and time to talk things through is easier on a small campus, Harkreader said.

“It’s very, very easy to get lost in a big pond,” she said. “We’re a small pond.”

“Everyone in this class has found their voice,” said eighth-grader Coby Corkery.

Corkery is on the school council that oversees how money for school programs is spent. He voted for field trips. Some students never had been on one because at neighborhood schools, students with bad grades or bad behavior typically get left behind.

Fun Fridays, when students and staff join in activities or sports, serve as another carrot for the school that recognizes the stick is less effective for kids very used to that approach.

“We hold students to high standards,” Harkreader said. “If on Thursday we’ve had a great week, we want to recognize hard work and good attendance,” she said.

Most students stay one year before going back to a regular campus or continuation high school. Harkreader said her team works with the school they return to, hoping to set them up for success in the future.

“We become advocates for them,” she said.

Corkery, for one, said he will go on to high school a wiser man.

Asked what advice they would give to other kids who were taking the same risks in school that they did, seventh-grader Anthony Razo summed it up: “Think twice!”