ELEVATE: Guiding Teens Through Trauma


Norman Alternative School Helps Kids Overcome Incredible Odds
 
NORMAN (August 16, 2017) – Death, alcoholism, and family involved with gangs in a neighboring city made going to school difficult for a 16-year-old Norman girl. That was before she had a baby.
 
Three years later, she has a high school diploma, a national award for poetry and plans for college. Dimensions Academy, an alternative school in Norman serving grades kindergarten through 12, and the district’s Baby Steps program are providing life-changing opportunities for kids who need more than traditional schools can offer.
 
Often alternative schools are perceived as a last resort for delinquent students. But Justin Milner, assistant superintendent for administrative services for Norman Public Schools, said Dimensions creates a safe place focused not only on academic needs but the social and emotional needs of its students, many of whom are the victims of trauma.
 
“These are not bad kids. These are kids who have come from bad situations,” Milner said. “Alternative education is about meeting students’ needs where they are and helping them succeed in reaching their goals of graduation.”
 
Dimensions students come from diverse backgrounds. Some are suffering from the death of their parents, extreme poverty, physical abuse or a home with substance abuse. Others just need a smaller learning environment than Norman’s two traditional high schools, where enrollment exceeds 2,000 students per school, can offer. Dimensions serve about 70 students at a time in its high school. 
 
“You’ve got situations where they’re homeless, so they’re staying with friends or wherever they can find. Their home may have been raided. Maybe the last time they ate was when they were here on campus. That doesn’t mean that every kid who comes through here has experienced that, but a number have,” Milner said. “Some of those stories we hear would probably shake us as adults and put us on our knees. Going through that kind of trauma, it would be easy for any of us to lose our focus on completing high school.”
 
Alternative education programs are a holistic approach to meet each student’s needs, said Jennifer Wilkinson, director of alternative education for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. While the main goal is academics, most alt-ed programs place additional focus on life skills, arts education and counseling.
 
“Alternative education programs are tailored to meet the needs of the individual. These are students who for one reason or another are not successful in a traditional setting yet thrive in smaller, hands-on environments,” Wilkinson said.
 
Dimensions is one of 274 alternative public education programs in Oklahoma serving about 12,000 students. Oklahoma is seeing success with the programs, as state graduation rates for alt-ed programs increased three percentage points from 2015 to 2016.
 
Milner said he knows teachers’ tenacity and individualized instruction is working at Dimensions because he’s seen a significant decline in the number of students dropping out. If students are chronically absent, the staff visits them at their homes or workplaces to encourage them to return to school.
 
“Going to our senior celebration every year, I walk out of there just in tears because you hear the stories of these kids and all the adversity they’ve overcome to get this high school diploma. And you think, ‘Wow, it was really too easy for me,’” Milner said.
 

Restoring hope

 
Courtney Osborn, 15, came to Dimensions when anxiety began to interfere with her schoolwork. The unease of a large school caused her to miss classes for doctor appointments, which snowballed into greater anxiety when it became even more critical that she pay attention to catch up on missed work. Osborn now splits her days between Dimensions and her home school, Norman North High School.
 
“All the students are really diverse here, so everyone can have people they relate to. I was really nervous about coming at first, but then I got here and there were people just like me.”
 
Dimensions teachers are specifically trained to relate to students who have experienced challenges in their lives. Some of the school’s teachers are also licensed counselors. 
 
One of the school’s strengths is its flexible learning strategies, said Paul Tryggestad, director of Dimensions. Teachers can create learning plans that fit a student’s needs but still are rigorous, have high standards and prepare them for postsecondary education. 
“Our mission/vision is to really restore hope for these students while connecting them to their future. We don’t want our goal to be just a high school diploma. I want the kids to look out ahead to careers and college,” Tryggestad said.
 
Osborn has her future mapped out: She plans to have a cosmetology certification by the time she graduates from Dimensions, work for one to two years to save money for college, earn a degree in nursing – and own a big, furry dog. 
 
“My favorite thing is how you can have a really close relationship with the teachers,” Osborn said. “I also like that you know all of the students, so it’s not like you come to school with a bunch of random people every day. It’s kind of like a family environment, which I like a lot.”
 
Dimensions also acts as a resource in the community. When Norman Addiction Information and Counseling sought dialogue between youth and city leaders, it invited students from the school to sit on a panel at a town hall meeting. Osborn was one of the eight who brainstormed how to reduce underage drinking and substance abuse.
 
Osborn’s ideas, born out of the empathy she has for others, led to solutions intended to raise awareness of mental health resources available to students. She argued that the temptation to self-medicate against depression and emotional struggles can lead to drug abuse more often than peer pressure.
 

‘You just want to do more’

 
Houston Pretty Bear, 18, found himself two and a half years behind in his coursework after bullying made him lose interest in school. After one year at Dimensions, he graduated with his senior class. He said it is a great place for students who don’t fit in at traditional high schools.
 
“At Dimensions, they understand. They teach the stuff you need to know and make sure you get it. The smaller classrooms are a lot easier because teachers can actually go to each student and find a way they can learn,” Pretty Bear said.
 
Tryggestad said each student must demonstrate a commitment to complete high school to qualify for admittance to the school, and the school’s intimate size helps hold students accountable because they’re not lost in a crowd.
 
“We’re small, so that allows students the opportunity to quickly build relationships with staff and to really feel like part of a family. By building those relationships, they’re more motivated to come to school,” Tryggestad said. 
 
Pretty Bear is enrolled at Oklahoma City Community College to study engineering in the fall. He later hopes to get a master’s degree in robotics and work at Tinker Air Force Base.
 
Tryggestad said the school’s pace is more condensed, and credits are based on competency rather than seat time, meaning if students are willing to work hard, they can make up several courses. While in some courses like English, the students work on lessons as a class, other classes such as computer science are self-paced. This format allows the school to tailor an education plan to fit each student.
One of the reasons Pretty Bear graduated on time is because one of the teachers, out of her own pocket, helped pay for a book for his senior project. Milner said it’s that level of support and stability that spurs students to want to come to school.
 
“I think back to one student who we had last year who left the funeral of her father and reached out to the school and said, ‘Can I come in? I need to be at school,’” Milner said.
 

Baby steps

 
Dimensions is also finding ways to support the children of its students through the Baby Steps program, which serves Dimensions, Norman High School and Norman North High School. Program director Angela Johnson teaches the high school course specially designed for teen mothers. It covers child development, parenting, positive guidance, sleep, feeding, prenatal development, and labor and delivery. 
 
Baby Steps is a coalition created by the Junior League of Norman with the Center for Children and Families, Norman Public Schools and Crossroads Youth and Family Services. Crossroads manages an early Head Start program for children from 6 weeks to 3 years old. In a typical day, a mother will ride the bus with her child to the Head Start house, take the Baby Steps class first hour, then bus back to her home school. At the end of the school day, a bus will take her back to the house, then transport her and her child home.
 
Johnson elaborated on the story of the 16-year-old girl introduced above who turned her life around in the face of incredible odds. The girl’s mother and sister had both died in the year and a half before the girl joined Baby Steps. Her father had an addiction and was unable to take care of her or her unborn baby.
 
“Her mother had moved her and her siblings here from Oklahoma City to get away from the gang life of her extended family. When her mother died, she lost a great deal of her support system. We at Dimensions became that for her. She recently said to us, ‘You all are coming to graduation, right? You’re my people.’”
 
Johnson said the girl graduated in May after living on her own for two years and juggling transportation, bills, a job that was her sole income and a young child. At one point she was in jeopardy of losing her housing because she needed a brother or sister to stay overnight to watch her baby while she worked, but overnight guests were against housing rules.
 
“With her it has been a three-year process of teaching life skills and how to navigate life,” said Johnson, who handles case management and is available for informal and crisis counseling. Her Baby Steps class also functions as a support group for the girls.
 
Johnson said her student has learned to handle crises, communicate effectively and make decisions for the long-term benefit of herself and her child. 
 

Soulful questions

The shine of Dimensions recently caught the eye of renowned author Sam Weller, who felt so strongly about the school he facilitated a three-day writers’ festival there, hosting live Skype interviews with authors such as Gillian Flynn, who wrote the best-selling thriller “Gone Girl.”
 
“It infiltrated my heart completely within five minutes of walking in the door. I saw the effervescence of the faculty and staff, and the commitment that was genuine that they have toward the students,” said Weller, a Bram Stoker Award-winner and Ray Bradbury’s authorized biographer, who first visited Dimensions while in town for the Pioneer Library System’s Big Read in 2016.
 
Weller, an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, said as a writer, he noticed key details at Dimensions that told a bigger story.
 
“I know what it’s like to phone it in as an instructor. I’ve seen it. We all have our moments as teachers when we’re not on our A-game. This place was on its A-game the minute I saw it, and I saw it right away,” Weller said. 
 
Weller’s observations at Dimensions have altered the way he approaches his college classes. He said he reflects differently on his teaching and is now more enthusiastic about his lessons.
 
“I saw the commitment and dedication in the faculty and staff, and the respect they give to the students in allowing the curriculum and the dialogue on a daily basis to just sort of flow and merge. It’s very dynamic and infectious,” Weller said. “These students are deep. They are thinkers. They are creative. They are the best representation of alternative minded.”
 
Weller said during the festival the guest authors were amazed at the depth of the students’ insights and their ability to use their life experiences to connect with those of the writers.
 
“No pat questions. No pat answers. ‘How does it feel to be a famous writer?’ You’re not getting any of that here. You’re getting questions about their humanity. Everybody has a story in this place. There are some tough stories,” Weller said. “They want to share their experiences, and they’re connecting those experiences to the authors with questions.”
 
“I do these high school festivals as a guest, not as someone facilitating it. And 100 percent they’re in affluent, suburban areas with a deep reserve of finances from a great tax base. They’re always in an auditorium with 600 kids who are texting, throwing things, not paying attention, sleepers – that’s not to say all of them, there are great kids paying attention – but the level of engagement in here and the energy: It’s like the best college students I’ve ever had.”
 
Annette Price is communications and constituent services specialist at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
 
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PHOTOS: Students at Dimensions Academy in Norman participated in a three-day writer’s festival, which featured Skype appearances by authors such as Gillian Flynn, who wrote “Gone Girl.”
 
Gillian Flynn, the author of the best-selling novel “Gone Girl,” speaks to students at Dimensions Academy in Norman via Skype.
 
Sam Weller (center) listens as Gillian Flynn, author of the best-selling novel “Gone Girl,” speaks to students at Dimensions Academy in Norman via Skype. 
 
Last updated on August 16, 2017