Alternative school prepares students for reality

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Before coming out of retirement in 2004 to teach at the Carroll County Alternative Learning Center, Ed Nelson, the school’s current principal, taught agriculture classes at Carroll County High School for 28 years. Referring to himself as “an old vocational teacher at heart,” Nelson says preparing students as citizens and employees has always been important to him as an educator.

“We’re big on careers here,” said Nelson, referring to the ALC, which provides a structured environment for students needing alternative placement. “We always say, ‘Every student is a potential employee.’”

Nelson said students at the ALC receive a rigorous academic curriculum using a computerized teaching and learning system called E2020, which matches coursework with student needs. The school of approximately 30 students in grades 6-12 also places a strong emphasis on employability skills.

“Our students need to be employable, and that comes down to life skills, such as showing up on time for work, getting along with others, thinking long term, and channeling their emotions in a positive way,” Nelson said. “We stress that more than anything.”

One recent lesson in life skills included a life-experiences simulation called “The Reality Store.” Community partners from the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service and Carroll County Board of Education joined ALC teacher Crystal Raisor and school social worker Tammy Welch in setting up stations representing different goods and services needed as part of daily living.

“The Reality Fair was an eye-opening experience for our students,” said Raisor, former principal of the Carroll County Area Technology Center, who explained that the students were given a budget based on the career they had identified in their Individual Learning Plans.  Students got to see, first-hand, how far their assigned income would go in paying for housing, transportation, food and child care, among other areas. “Many students were very surprised how quickly their money was spent.”

Raisor said that common comments among participants included “Life is hard,” “Everything is so expensive,” and “It sure takes a lot of money to get by.”

“Several students realized they may need to reconsider their post-secondary education plans and/or career choices in order to meet their future goals in life,” Raisor said.

In addition to rigorous academics, social-emotional skill development, and career counseling, the students also receive instruction in arts and humanities four times a week.

Like Nelson, Jeff Root also came out of retirement to lend his expertise at the Carroll County Alternative Center.  After serving as band director and music teacher at Carroll County High School for 27 years, Root began coordinating the district In-School Suspension Program in 2009.

He teaches musical concepts using plastic 5-gallon buckets turned upside down and regular drum sticks as percussion instruments. The school has formed a percussion ensemble, known as “The Come Back Kids.” The only music ensemble at an alternative school in Kentucky, they have performed several times in the past two years, most recently at half time of the basketball game between Carroll County High School and Henry County High School on Dec. 11.

Six of Root’s students in the 2011-12 school year earned 11 distinguished ratings at the 5th District Solo and Ensemble Festival, which was the first time ever that students from an alternative school had competed at a Kentucky Music Educators Association music festival.

Root recently shared the school’s success with its music program at the KMEA Professional Development Conference in Louisville on Feb. 7, where more than 100 music educators throughout the state attended Root’s presentation.

“We’ve had lots of positive feedback on the presentation,” said Root, who has answered numerous e-mail requests from schools throughout the state that are interested in using bucket drums to introduce musical concepts.

“Not every school can afford to hand out clarinets in fifth grade,” said Root, who has taught the ALC students to count and read music, “but they can teach rhythm and some basic concepts with the buckets.”

Nelson said the most exciting part of his job is when he sees former students out in the community and they share their success at finding a good job.

“They get so excited to tell me that they are on their way to work,” Nelson said. “I get cold chills just thinking about it.”


Jeff Fremin is director of public relations for Carroll County Public Schools.