Kristina Rathbun was a straight A student at G. Ray Bodley High School until her junior year. That year, what she said was nearly non-stop bullying from former friends caused her to give up on school.
“I couldn’t be by myself in school,” she said. “I even had to have a hall monitor take me to the bathroom.”
Her grades fell to Cs and Ds. She lost potential college credits because she failed advanced placement courses. She thought about quitting.
“I went to my guidance counselor and said I wanted to be in school but I couldn’t be in the high school.”
In the past, that might have meant going home and starting work on a GED, a degree equivalent to a high school diploma. Instead, Rathbun landed in a small district program for students who are failing courses, have behavior problems or miss too much school and need to be away from the distractions of a big high school.
She became one of as many as two dozen students enrolled in the district’s alternative location program. In the program, students go to the district’s Education Center building for half a day or an entire day. There, they get small group and one-on-one tutoring. The goal is to get the student’s grades up and usually to get the student back into the high school. Teachers in the high school provide the assignments.
It takes at least five good weeks of grades, attendance and behavior for a student to go back to the high school.
Betsy Conners, the district’s executive director of instruction and assessment, said most students land in the alternative program because they’ve had a meltdown. “It’s like providing a safety net for these kids,” said Jeremy Belfield, an administrative intern working with the program this year. “Some of them feel like they’ve fallen on their faces. We help to pick them up.”
One-on-one instruction isn’t cheap, but neither are the alternatives.
The district, as with every other school district in the state, is under enormous pressure to raise student test scores and raise its graduation rate. Fulton recently came off the state’s list of underperforming schools. Landing on that list imposes some significant costs on the district and can lead in extreme cases to the state seizing control of the district. There’s a cost to having a student repeat a grade or a class. And there’s the cost to taxpayers of sending yet another under-educated person into the world when they quit school before getting a diploma.
The district has seen significant jobs growth in the areas of teaching related to students with special or academic needs, even though overall jobs growth in the district is fairly flat.
The alternative education program, along with other programs for underperforming students in the district, took shape after a large-scale study of students who dropped out of school three years ago. The eight programs, which run the gamut from simple tutoring in school to long-term one-on-one schooling for suspended or ill students, handled approximately 75 students last semester. The alternative location program at the Education Center is the largest of the eight alternative education programs.
Belfield can tell you stories about other students in the program, such as the story of a teenaged boy who said last year that he was going to drop out of school.
“I remember him sitting in the hallway, melting down,” Belfield said.
The young man resisted authority and got into power struggles with students and teachers.
He was convinced to join the alternative location program and is currently spending half a day at the Education Center and the other half of the day at BOCES. He’s on track to graduate next year.
“This is a kid we were going to lose,” Belfield said.
More than half of the students in the alternative location program have begun to fix what went wrong — they’ve improved their grades or their behavior or their attendance. Four students graduated in January. At least two are going to college either now or in the fall, while a third has a job.
“Most of these kids have never had success in their lives,” said Conners. “We have kids who are passing classes for the first time. They’re attending school. We have kids who are passing Regents exams.”
As for Kristina Rathbun, she’s back on track — getting good grades again and passing Regents exams. She’ll graduate in August and hopes to attend ITT Technical Institute for computer programming. “It’s made me want to be a better student,” she said. “I think I’m different since I came here. I love being here.”