Waterloo’s Alternative Learning Center Expo Turns the Numbers Around | Local News

LEAH MCBRIDE MENSCHING IowaWatch

Editor’s Note: IowaWatch, as part of a year-long investigation, found that while each state is required to identify the bottom 5% of Title I schools every three years, this doesn’t mean these schools are “failing,” as some Iowa policymakers label it. them. All 34 schools in Iowa are on a “comprehensive” list. IowaWatch features some of them.

Cary Wieland and Henry Shepherd are Ted Lasso and Coach Beard Public Schools in Iowa.

They are respectively principal and vice-principal of the Expo Alternative Learning Center in Waterloo, an alternative secondary school that serves students in grades 6-12.

Over the past seven years, the school’s suspension rate has dropped 90%, credit accumulation has increased 125%, and the four-year graduation rate is 55%, down from just 17%.

“A lot of people like to walk past alternative schools and say, ‘That’s where the bad kids go. That’s not where the bad kids go,” Wieland said. “It’s where kids go just to be able to be on a different path so they can be successful. And our students are succeeding.

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Over the past seven years, Expo has implemented different strategies and interventions to help children rather than suspend them.



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“I might have a student in front of me who might verbally insult me ​​up and down. … Seven years ago, my staff would have wanted a pound of flesh to say, ‘How long are we going to get this kid out of school?’ “, did he declare. “Their perception is now, it’s not about my ego, it’s not about the pound of flesh, it’s about this kid in front of me. They verbally insult me ​​because “they are in crisis. How can I find supports and services for this child?”

Over 550 students are registered for the Expo, but a total of 1,100 to 1,200 attend at any given time during an academic year. Last year, 155 students graduated, and in recent years the district has achieved its highest graduation rate in history, thanks to the capture of students at Expo who likely would have dropped out. otherwise, Wieland said.

Imagine a pyramid

To understand how alternative schools fit into the overall picture of schools, it helps to imagine a pyramid, Wieland said. At the low end, approximately 80% of all students respond to universal learning and behavioral interventions; about another 15% need some additional type of intervention, such as small groups. Then 3-5% need more intensive personalized plans for their studies and/or behaviors, and sometimes more one-on-one work with teachers.

“So this little pyramid for other schools becomes our full pyramid here at Expo,” he said.

Expo is listed as full, one of 34 such schools in Iowa. These are Title I schools that score in the bottom 5% in the state based on student performance on the Iowawide Student Progress Assessment Test, and/or for high schools, have a graduation rate of less than 67.1%.

Expo currently has a comprehensive school score of 24.65; the average score for schools in Iowa is 54.94.

Over 75% of Expo students are eligible for free and discounted lunch, higher than the state average of 40.1%. Nearly 26% are in individualized education programs, also higher than the state average of 12.9%. Over 58% of students are minorities, also higher than the state average of 25.7%.

When a student comes to Expo, the school studies their three-year trend data and the supports they need. They also have conversations with the students’ families.

“We tell them that we’re not just here for your child, but we’re here for you too,” Wieland said.

Invested

In early 2021, the Waterloo School District gave Expo the results of its Culture and Climate Survey, which details the most challenging issues and concerns or gaps within the building. He came back showing that 96% of everyone in the building is invested in the school. Seven years ago, it was 45%.

“It tells us that we have a really good foundation and that we’re supporting our students and staff and seeing great things at all levels,” he said.

And this improved climate leads to academic success.

In February 2021, the school was named a Leader in Me Lighthouse School for Outstanding Achievement, based on a standard set by FranklinCovey, which addresses Covey’s work around seven habits for highly effective teens.

About 300 schools worldwide receive Lighthouse certification, and Expo is the first alternative high school in the world to achieve this status. It is also only the third high school in the nation and the first high school in Iowa State to be Lighthouse certified.

Then, in March, the Iowa Department of Education honored Expo as a Model School for its work in positive behavioral interventions and supports during the 2019-20 school year. PBIS focuses on conditions to support learning, and being named a model school is its highest accreditation.

“It would be rare to receive these two awards and this recognition… in a typical year, but then to receive them both in a year when we are dealing with a global pandemic and all that is different , I think that’s a kudos to our whole building,” said Henry Shepherd, assistant manager at the Expo.

To do work

Behind all the awards and growing positive numbers, there is a lot of hard work.

About 150 students who had dropped out of school returned to graduate at the Expo. Wieland said he remembered a college student juggling her three children, a full-time job, and graduating from high school.

“These kids went out into the world and said, ‘Hey, I have to go to school because over there, without a high school diploma, it’s a world of dog-eating dogs,'” Wieland said. “What we are trying to do is to produce producers of society and not consumers of society. And so some of these kids in this program, your heart goes out to them.

When children arrive at the Expo, they usually run out of credits. But if those students work, teachers will work just as hard to make sure they graduate, Shepherd said.

“It is so overwhelming for some of our students and some of our families that [graduation] can be a reality for their child,” he said.

If there’s a problem, it’s not that Expo is “failing,” as some lawmakers and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds have called the 34 Iowa schools listed as needing full support.

“It’s a realization. You look at the 155 students who graduated last year, [who] could have actually been pushed back into the community as dropouts. So what is the burden and what are the statistics for these students if they actually drop out of school? I guess it’s a survival pipeline, along with drug addiction, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, the criminal justice system. So how much money has been saved in our communities by providing services and support? Wieland said.

“When we start looking at some of these political barriers, it hurts my heart. It hurts the soul. Because we see it every day on the front lines, and we want people to understand that our children are goingod. »

Leah McBride Mensching is a freelance writer for IowaWatch. She has worked as a journalist, editor, photographer and media researcher for the past 15 years, both as a freelance journalist and as an editorial manager for WAN-IFRA, the world press organization. She received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.