Saturday, June 21st, 2014
By Doug Drexler
Local academy helps struggling teens succeed
Program offers online classes with teachers assisting students
  CELINA - Daniel "Ray" Harrell was just coasting through classes at Coldwater High School, probably doing enough to graduate by his fourth year.
"(I was) getting by with friends," said the 17-year-old. "I did enough to get by."
When his mother and stepfather divorced, Harrell was left with a hard choice. His mother, Linda Brunswick, was moving to Wapakoneta, but he wanted to stay in Coldwater and live with his stepfather, Dave Brunswick.
However the school district based residency on the biological parent's home, which meant he would have to move to a new, larger district away from his friends.
"A school I didn't know," he said quietly.
He had moved along the East Coast often as a young child, so much he can't keep the years and moves together in his mind.
"From sixth grade down is a blank," he said.
He, his mother and older brother had lived in South Carolina, Virginia and Florida, where his brother accidentally started a fire playing with a lighter, destroying their trailer, Harrell said.
The family then moved to be near his mother's father, Lloyd Flynn, in Wapakoneta, then to Coldwater when his mother and stepfather married, he said. In Coldwater he finally felt at home; he didn't want to move again.
Truant officer Nick Schulze had worked with Harrell and suggested he give Aladdin Academy in Celina a try. Schulze helped get Harrell accepted, according to the teen.
"I was pretty fortunate to get into that school," he said.
  The community school opened in Celina's Education Complex in time for the 2013-14 school year. It offers a blend of online courses in a classroom setting with teachers available for assistance.
"It's all at your own pace," Harrell said. "If you want to slack off, you won't get done."
He picked up the academic pace quickly.
"Mr. (Principal Dave) Lamb taught me that hard work counts," Harrell said. "He's the one that pushed me."
Harrell said at Aladdin he no longer felt like he was just a face in a crowd; someone was taking a personal interest in his progress. He excelled and graduated a year early. He's sending out resumes and planning to work full time at a local factory as soon as he turns 18 on Thursday, he said.
After he makes enough money to pay for classes, he may attend college to get a degree to work on autos or diesel engines, he said. Another choice would be to work his way up at a factory.
Aladdin Academy is organized through the Mercer County Education Service Center. The ESC already offered an alternative school as well as services including speech, special education and physical therapy, according to ESC superintendent Andy Smith said. He saw the academy as a natural extension of ESC's role.
Smith said school superintendents throughout the county recognized a need for an alternative for students who couldn't succeed in the regular classroom.
"We all know school as it's set up isn't for everyone," Smith said.
Aladdin has 50 students: 43 from Celina City Schools and students from St. Henry, Coldwater, Parkway and Fort Recovery, Smith said. It is funded like a charter school, receiving the student's state foundation money from his or her home district, $5,745 a year.
The students must meet the same standards as those at a traditional school, including passing the Ohio Graduation Test. Aladdin's first graduating class had 21 students.
"The proof is in the pudding," Schulze said. "You've got kids graduating that two years ago nobody would have thought would be graduating."
Celina City Schools Superintendent Jesse Steiner said the academy gives students personal attention that is impossible at Celina High School.
"The teachers were able to give them the one-on-one level they needed," he said. "We're just not able to do that at a big school."
Many of Celina's students at the the academy were facing severe life issues outside of school, lacked credits and were not on track to graduate, according to Steiner.
"The regular setting was just not working for them," he said.
Aladdin personnel even helped one student find housing after becoming homeless, Steiner noted.
Schulze knew some Aladdin students from his work as a truancy officer. He saw less truancy once they began at the new school, he said. Some of the students had issues outside the classroom, including drug issues or a family member with drug issues.
Leaders say the classroom setting at Aladdin provides a big advantage over other Internet-based schools.
"We have an online curriculum, but we have teachers in the classroom," Smith said. "Most of the education has to be onsite."
Enrollment at Aladdin is capped at 50 students to ensure a hands-on approach from the five part-time teachers, Smith said. The school is licensed for seventh through 12th grade but focuses on the high school years. The school plans to stay at 50 students for the 2014-15 school year but may consider expanding after that if there is enough demand, Smith said. A waiting list already exists for next school year.
Getting the right principal was the real key, Smith said. Lamb had a strong background as an educator and as a school psychologist.
"The key to it was the director. He has a very wide range of skills," Smith said. "He understands learning, and he understands you're going to have to do a lot of unusual things for the kids."
All the teachers also meet the federal highly qualified status, Smith said. The school presents some unique challenges for those teachers.
"Every kid is working at their own level and at their own pace," he said.
However, the online coursework gives the teachers time to get to know the students personally.
"They've earned the students' trust. They care about how each of the kids do," Smith said. "Once they trust you, they're willing to take direction."
The setting allows the students to bring out their best, he said.
"They're all extremely talented in one way or another," he said. "That's not always demonstrated at (a traditional) school."
One student was mechanically gifted, Smith said, so he was given the opportunity to fix a tractor.
"Learning wasn't confined to a classroom," he said. "Those activities outside the classroom are important, too."
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