By the time Andy Leggett was entering the 7th grade, he had been bullied and beaten so often that when anyone spoke to him he would cower beneath his stringy, unkempt hair and stare at the floor. At school, his peers degraded him and his teachers avoided him; he talked to no one. His only goal was to disappear.
Although Andy was reading at a 12th grade level, he was failing in his classes and falling into a deep depression. 6 years later, in his speech to his fellow graduates of the Choices Charter School High School class of 2007, Andy, standing tall and blow-dried, described himself before transferring to Choices as “dirty, lonely and depressed, trapped in a seemingly inescapable cycle of neglect and abuse.”
Life changed for Andy, when, in 7th grade, he enrolled in the independent study program at Choices Charter School. At Choices, Andy found the attention and structure that he had so craved, and as is the intention of the independent study model, upon entering high school at Choices, Andy took charge of his own life. He learned how to utilize his resources, and began to see school as a way to achieve happiness and success.
For various reasons, many students in Sacramento need alternatives to our traditional school system. Some, like Andy, face harassment by peers accompanied by a lack of support at home. Even more common: many public school students are uninspired as they move through a daily life of class periods and their signaling bells. While some students enjoy the structure and social strata of a comprehensive high school, others are bored and frustrated, doing the minimum in order to pass; some bored students find other, not-so-Kosher (or legal), activities to fulfill them. Many kids don’t fit the status quo of the American high school student and put off the pursuit a higher education, or worse, never pursue it at all.
So why must we wait until too late, or, if we’re lucky, until we’re in our 3rd year of college, to be successful students? Do so many high school students have to hate school? In Sacramento, the staff at Choices Charter School says, no, they don’t.
If students want an alternative to their traditional high school, often, home or private schools are not options. In 1999, Marie Pflugrath, Choices Charter School Executive Director, started Choices “to meet the needs of students not served in the comprehensive environment. Too many smart, good-hearted kids were failing or dropping out of comprehensive high schools because they couldn’t cope with the large social and educational scene.” Choices is available to any student living in Sacramento County or in any county contiguous, as Pflugrath explains, “Students range from those with more independence for whom school is one piece of their multi-faceted life, to those who need more time and one-on-one contact.” The small school community allows for a familiarity among students and staff and for more individual attention. The more independent students may come to campus for 1 to 2 hours weekly, while younger students–or those looking for more structure–may utilize the staff and facilities any time during the hours of operation. Without all of the bureaucratic strata of larger public schools, the Choices culture promotes accessibility; thus, the open-door policy of the campus invites greater continuity among students, staff, and parents.
In the vein of full disclosure, I must point out that I am one of the 25 teachers at Choices Charter School, where every teacher has a California teaching credential (we are NCLB compliant), and many have a Master’s degree. Choices is a public school chartered through San Juan Unified School District; and since 1999, test scores, enrollment numbers, and feedback from students and parents show that it’s succeeding. Choices is WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) accredited, thus, certified so that all of the nation’s universities, even the most elite like Stanford, CalTech, and Tulane, view its graduates as coming from the best that California produces among its pool of college applicants.
Choices is a public school and doesn’t turn away any students. Pflugrath explains that to enroll, students and their guardians must attend the orientation where “we review our expectations. Transportation does serve as a determining factor, and is part of the initial conversation. Are the student and their family really capable of independent study? Is this going to serve them best?” Unlike comprehensive schools in the district, Choices doesn’t have its own buses (though it encourages public transportation, even issuing RT passes). Nor does it have sports teams or proms. There are social opportunities on campus, but more like those at an office or community college extension. The intent is independence and no one pretends that Choices is just like other schools. The schedule is based on a community college model; while students range from 7th through 12th grades, most of the 300 students are juniors and seniors.
This summer, as Choices moves to its new location at Billy Mitchell Middle School, it continues to build upon its hybrid classroom structure of face-to-face contact–including lecture and discussion, with technology–including email, discussion boards, and online assignments. Choices has always depended upon a system of technology and interpersonal relationships as a way to maximize the independence that each student must achieve in order to succeed.
The majority of students at Choices are online at home; in fact, this spring the school gave all of its computers (2 to 3 year-old Dells and IBMs) to students in need. Pflugrath believes that Choices’ teachers “are poised to drop the chalk and step into the virtual classroom.” Her intention isn’t to leave the teacher behind; rather, she perceives that even more use of technology will increase more meaningful assessment and learning. Continuing her vision, Pflugrath acknowledges, “No one has yet solved the problems that plague all schools, but Choices acts to fill the holes that many students fall into after failing to thrive in comprehensive schools.”
For more information about Choices Charter School, please contact Marie Pflugrath at (916) 575-2830, or check out the website: www.sanjuan.edu/schools/choicescharter