SIDNEY — When school starts again Aug. 21 here, most high school kids will get up early and catch the bus to Sidney High School for classes that will begin at 7:30 a.m.
But that won’t be the case for students in the Opportunity School.
They may be up early, but it will be to take care of their children or other family members or to go to their jobs. They will show up at Sidney High later for classes that run from 3 to 7 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays.
The Opportunity School, a program of the Midwest Regional Educational Service Center, welcomes students who have been recommended by guidance counselors from their home Shelby County schools. They are teens and young adults — 21 is the oldest age eligible — who might not make it through high school without the flexibility the later class schedule allows.
The program will begin its 17th year this fall.
Tom Clark developed it and now serves as a consultant. Tom Roll is the coordinator and onsite administrator and is also an academic administrator during class periods.
“Most kids in this program aren’t typical daily learners,” Roll said. When developers researched the need for night school in 2000, they discovered that the majority of students who dropped out of high school didn’t do so because they were “dumb,” Clark said.
“But something happened that they couldn’t do school. We were able to offer an alternative to getting a diploma from a typical day school,” he added.
The Opportunity School has no study halls, no lunch break, no recess. Students take web-based classes on computers. One part-time and four part-time teachers, called academic administrators, oversee the classrooms, answer questions and handle administrative duties. Besides Roll and Clark, Bill Hoewischer, Hilary Davis and Doug Barhorst are on the faculty. Helen Ward is the grant coordinator and Greg Johnson is a data analyst. Outside tutors are brought in on as-needed basis.
The project’s $244,000 annual budget is funded by the educational service center, who employs the staff; local school districts; grants; state funds and the Shelby County United Way. The school usually has an enrollment of 60 to 70 students.
“We educate our students well below the state cost per pupil and the local districts’ cost per pupil, but that’s because we use an existing facility. We use Sidney High School at no cost,” Roll said.
The results are impressive.
Since 2000, 834 students have earned their diplomas. During the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent for which statistics are available, the mean grade point average of enrollees rose from 1.56 to 2.88. Average attendance was 80 percent, compared to 65 percent attendance by the same students before they started night classes. And the percentage of those students who passed the Ohio Graduation Test jumped from 33 to 75.
Besides academics, students can avail themselves of parenting classes, drug and alcohol counseling, career counseling and a work study component.
“We want our students to leave here well-rounded and able to be successful in the real world,” Roll said.
To make sure that happens, they require would-be and returning students, with their parents, to attend a 20-minute intake interview before the school year begins. At the end of the interview, the school adminstrators determine whether the program will be a good fit for the students.
“We turn away about 10 percent (of applicants),” Clark said. Those who are accepted must attend nine parent/teacher conferences throughout the year.
“We have 90 percent attendance at the conferences,” Roll noted. As students find themselves on the right track, they are guided back into their home schools or into the Upper Valley Career Center.
“But if it doesn’t work out, we’re a fall-back,” Roll said. Anyone is always welcome to return to the Opportunity School.
Despite the best efforts of the administrators, sometimes a teen begins the program and then drops out.
“We’ll get a second-year kid in August who can’t handle self-paced learning. We’ll tell them to have a good semester at (regular) high school and come back (for the second semester). We never turn someone away without incentive,” said Clark.
“We outline a plan when they can buy themselves back into the program,” Roll added.
The students who have the best chance of succeeding are the ones who have hit rock bottom, they noted.
Larissa Liveston, of Botkins, is one who succeeded. A 2017 graduate of Sidney High School, she participated in the Opportunity School for three and half years.
“There’s more attention toward one student when they need it,” she said about why it was right for her. She also appreciated the flexible hours.
“It let me have a job while I (went to school),” she said. Liveston was a resident assistant at Fair Haven. She’s now a full-time mom, who also appreciated that school was four instead of six hours each day and that administrators were understanding about difficult situations.
“I was pregnant in school, so there wasn’t as much drama. Teachers were relatable to my issues,” she said.
“One of the things we think is beneficial is that the first thing we try to do is develop a relationship with our students because they don’t trust adults,” Roll said. “They feel they’ve been cut from the herd, ostracized. We get them to understand we’re all here for the same reason so they should give us a chance. Once they trust us, they see we’re only trying to do what’s best for them.”
Liveston liked the computer classes. She had tried them in a home-schooling program, but couldn’t self-motivate to complete them. In a classroom with others, she found she was able to stick to the routine.
“Every student presents a new challenge,” Roll said.
Clark, however, noted that the school’s biggest current challenge is one faced by all schools: the changes in required testing mandated by the state.
“There’s confusion over what’s a passing score. It’s a change from five to seven tests and spread over three years instead of one,” he said.
A second hurdle this year is to make up a $27,000 funding loss due to the cancellation in the state budget of a challenge grant. The two leaders are not cowed by the prospect, however.
“One of the greatest opportunities is that we never say, ‘We’ve never done it that way before,” Clark said.
“We have firmly drawn parameters that are drawn in the sand,” laughed Roll.
Clark joined him in a guffaw.
“We may be older than dirt, but we have open minds and we’re willing to make changes,” he said.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.