Alternative school students 'doggedly' improve writing skills

Friday, March 21, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ Rufus, a golden retriever, was the center of attention Thursday for students in the Alternative Education Center. Pictured, from left, were Nathan Stearns, Malik Jones, Cortne Green, Cameron Lester-Goza and Ashley Thomas.

Visitors to the Alternative Education Center could hear the panting of dogs before they could see them. Then, with a flash of fur and the pounding of feet, two golden retrievers plowed down the stairs, seven students in tow.

Sally galloped into the bathroom while Rufus explored the office before the dogs and children were herded into their classroom.

There, with sweat glistening on their faces, the students plopped down on mushroom chairs, sat on their desks or crouched on the floor with the canines.

Since January, the students had been working on a writing assignment about Sally and Rufus. On Thursday, much to their excitement, director Carla Fee brought the dogs for a visit. Students proudly read their stories to the class, smiling at the taste of academic achievement, unfamiliar for some.

Growing program

The middle school program at the center has grown rapidly. It began with three students in January. Two months later, there are eight. In all, the center now serves about 100 students in grades five to 12. The middle school program will be capped at 10 children.

Students are recommended for the program for either academic or behavior reasons as administrators, and board members work to identify and assist at-risk students earlier. They stress the critical role middle school plays in determining a child's academic success later in life.

Through smaller classes and a focus on the basics, teacher Cheryl Kratochvil hopes to get the students caught up academically and put them on the path to attend Central Junior High. Central High School principal Dr. Mike Cowan has said he hopes the program helps lower the district's dropout rate, which reached 10.3 percent in 2007.

"When we started, I thought 'oh, man this doesn't look good.' But I have seen improvements. In their reading, I can already see a big improvement," Kratochvil, known as "Mrs. K" by her students, said.

Story writing

Fee said five or six students were referred to the center for discipline issues, but they "have had very few problems since being here. ... I think a lot of these kids just want attention, that's the bottom line."

She talked to the class in January about her dogs, and one student suggested writing about them. The class studied the writing process and students hope to eventually turn their stories into an illustrated series.

Cortne Green, a sixth-grader, said "everyone in the old school was so distracting," but with fewer people the class can "calm down." He read the story of "Sally and Rufus' Adventure," about the dogs roaming a neighborhood searching for food.

Sixth-grader Nathan Stearns described dogs "sleeping on freshly cut green grass," dreaming of escape. "There was not enough joy in kibble food," he read. "What would happen if they could explore the outside world?"

As the afternoon wound down and students prepared for dismissal, several said they may continue their writing, extending their stories, over spring break.

Even after Sally and Rufus' exit, their essence lingered. "Oh man, it smells like dog in here," Kratochvil said with a laugh.

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