2014-09-19 / Front Page

New offering for high school girls

School district launches girls’ alternative education program
By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer


Lindsay Andrews and Eden Heffernon clean out feed buckets at Ever After Mustang Rescue in Biddeford. Enrolled in the alternative education program at Kennebunk High School, all 12 female students volunteer two hours of their time each Friday at the rescue facility. (Alex Acquisto photo) Lindsay Andrews and Eden Heffernon clean out feed buckets at Ever After Mustang Rescue in Biddeford. Enrolled in the alternative education program at Kennebunk High School, all 12 female students volunteer two hours of their time each Friday at the rescue facility. (Alex Acquisto photo) KENNEBUNK — With funding provided by the district, for the first time Kennebunk High School is offering an alternative education program specifically for 12 high school girls.

Alternative education is widely misperceived as a learning atmosphere for students with behavioral problems.

When browsing the Maine Department of Education’s website, for example, alternate education is in a category with truancy and dropouts. While at times alternative education ends up truncating inappropriate behavior for some students, across-the-board students who enroll in alternative education have trouble learning in a classroom setting.


Brooke Seeley, a senior at Kennebunk High School, cleans out a stall at Ever After Mustang Rescue on Friday morning. Seeley, along with 11 other students, is enrolled in the new alternative education program for girls this year at the high school. The alternative education classroom setting allows more hands-on learning in and outside of the classroom and in the community. (Alex Acquisto photo) Brooke Seeley, a senior at Kennebunk High School, cleans out a stall at Ever After Mustang Rescue on Friday morning. Seeley, along with 11 other students, is enrolled in the new alternative education program for girls this year at the high school. The alternative education classroom setting allows more hands-on learning in and outside of the classroom and in the community. (Alex Acquisto photo) This trouble, however, is not necessarily coupled with bad behavior. The purpose is to educate students through a more hands-on approach and a variation from a traditional classroom structure.

More than 50 schools across Maine offer alternative education programs. In most cases, the programs can only be found in high schools. However, the number of middle school programs is growing: Maine has approximately 10 alternative education programs in middle schools, and about five in elementary schools.


After cleaning out a mustang’s stall, Katie Rakes empties a bucket into the back of a Gator on Friday morning at Ever After Mustang Rescue in Biddeford. Rakes, along with her classmates in the alternative education program at Kennebunk High School, divides her time between the classroom and community volunteer opportunities. (Alex Acquisto photo) After cleaning out a mustang’s stall, Katie Rakes empties a bucket into the back of a Gator on Friday morning at Ever After Mustang Rescue in Biddeford. Rakes, along with her classmates in the alternative education program at Kennebunk High School, divides her time between the classroom and community volunteer opportunities. (Alex Acquisto photo) The DOE, on the Maine.gov website, states, “Many students require a different type of educational environment and program in order for them to remain in school, to maximize their full potential as adult citizens, and clearly, in some cases, to minimize the adverse effects that they may be having upon other students within the regular education mainstream.”

Students who qualify for alternative education are typically thought to be “falling between the cracks” of the regular education system.

Because alternative education is a philosophy rather than a curriculum, it can be tailored to each student. Alternative education programs are primarily offered in public schools, but local private schools such as The School Around Us in Arundel and The New School in Kennebunk are examples of whole schools devoted to alternative education. Both share an emphasis on learning outside of the classroom.

Kennebunk High School began a male centered alternative education program in January of 2013.

“The guys got their program our sophomore year,” said Kidwell a senior, who recalled how a few girls tried to join, but were turned away for that mixing of genders would only cause distraction.

“The reason that it was just for boys is that we had a group of boys only who really needed a more nontraditional approach to learning,” said Principal Sue Cressey.

Frustrated at not having an alternative option, Kidwell and Bella Bruns began prodding administration to add a girls’ program. “It was very frustrating,” Bruns said.

Cressey, recognizing the legitimacy in the girls’ plea, proposed that the district include funding for the program in its annual budget. When it was approved, and the girls got word, Kidwell and Bruns began drafting a list of girls they thought might benefit from the program.

“It was something we’d been waiting for for too long — we knew other (girls) needed this as much as us,” Kidwell said.

The district hired Stacy Kalil to oversee the program. Kalil, who graduated from Kennebunk High School, has worked with alternative education in Portland (Youth Build) and at Yarmouth High School.

During the summer, Kalil and Assistant Principal Jason Sullivan vetted prospective girls in an interview process.

Because alternative education offers a different classroom experience – significantly less time sitting and processing information at a desk and on paper – students are graded differently. Recognizing the value of autonomy, Kalil has required the girls to set up a more abstract grading system and to keep track of what credits they need to graduate with their diploma of choice.

There is an emphasis on personal accountability; in many ways, earning value from an alternative education program is up to the individual. Kalil told them from the beginning, “I have very high expectations of you.”

What has resulted, so far, is a very sharp, driven group of female students.

The classroom is located in a modular building, divided in half, shared by the boys program.

There are no desks in the girls’ classroom. Instead, they congregate around a round table in the middle of the room. Around the room, pinned on the walls and scribed on the white board, are rules, standards and a wish list of needs and wants, all drafted by the girls.

On the first day of school fewer than three weeks ago, the girls were required to formulate a classroom grading system. Ranging from one to five, the girls rate themselves each day in the areas of participation, attitude, collaboration and progress. Kalil then, each day, grades them in each area based on her thoughts of participation.

“I wanted them to have the ownership and (to know) what they were committing themselves to,” Kalil said.

“They’re very hard on themselves,” Kalil said quietly as the girls discussed an upcoming fundraising event across the room.

Depending on each girl’s schedule, they will come and go throughout the day to attend regular classes or vocational studies. Many of the girls also take online course-recovery classes (Plato) to stay caught up with credits they need to graduate.

“Stereotypes are so not the case,” Kalil said of her students. “The students I have are so smart and so willing to do so much more. It’s not the academics they can’t handle – they want to learn, they just need an alternative setting.”

For Cressey, offering an alternative education program is a necessity. “My philosophy is that students achieve success both in terms of academics and behavior when they are in the right programs. One size does not fit all. The alternative program fills an important need for non-traditional, hands-on learners.”

Many of the girls, when asked, have defined career aspirations. There’s a sense of responsibility in them—without the confines of a traditional classroom, the ability to succeed comes down to their own drive to do so. Rather than appearing intimidated by this autonomous system, many of the girls are invigorated.

On the far wall, the girls have drawn a grid of “Credits We Still NEED” in all of the school subjects. While many girls will fill their remaining credits in the classroom, they also fill them under Kalil’s tutelage.

“Yes, there are academics, but it’s also taking what we learn out in the community--we get out and actually apply what we’re learning,” Kalil said.

Said Eden Heffernon, “If we’re studying geometry, we’re not necessarily doing pen and paper work. It’s one thing to be in school and do work, but it’s just more holistic to actually get out there and apply what we learn.” In many ways, Kalil said, “We’re teaching things that they’ll need to learn after they graduate.”

The girls transfer what they’ve learned in curriculum to the surrounding communities in a variety of ways. Each Friday, for example, the girls spend two hours volunteering at Ever After Mustang Rescue in Biddeford. There, guided by the owner, Mona Jerome, the girls undertake messier jobs like stable management, but they also get to put certain science curriculum into practice by working closely with the rescued mustangs.

Other community activities the girls have already begun planning for this school year include volunteering at the humane society, Habitat for Humanity, trail maintenance at local land trusts and organizing and leading a children’s literature program at Kennebunk Elementary School through a grant from the Barbara Bush Foundation. To coincide with the English curriculum, the girls plan to draft a monthly newsletter.

Even though the program received funding from the district this year, the girls are planning multiple fundraising events, the biggest of which is a bake sale at the homecoming parade Saturday. Their wish list, which depends on funding, includes basic classroom commodities like blinds, chairs, lamps, a bulletin board and a plant.

In a lull of conversation, the girls started adding up their collective absences last year. With the number climbing into the 200s, Kalil interrupted and asked, “But do you know how attendance has been this year? Nearly 100 percent.”

Before the alternative education program, said Katie, “I know that a lot of us didn’t like coming to school. Now, it’s like our own little family.”

“I would not have graduated without this,” Bruns said. Many of the other girls nodded. “We needed this, to get girls in and to get them graduating,” Kidwell said.

The new program has spurred conversation throughout the school, which is a good thing, Kalil said. “There’’s almost going to be a waiting list next year.”

Principal Cressey recognizes that some will misunderstand it. “Some people will say, ‘Oh, what about Common Core?’ but there are multiple ways to meet the standards of a proficiency-based education.”

“In terms of the Common Core, alternative students will be responsible for the learning standards; however, the system acknowledges that students may use various pathways to achieve the standards,” Cressey said. “Math standards, for example, may be accomplished through a building project.”

Sitting at the round table with the girls in their classroom, Cressey looked around at their faces and said, “These girls are totally articulate, capable and intelligent. “They just happen to learn in a different way.”

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