High school junior Denairio Cannon, 17, of Belleville admits he didn't like Belleville District 201's alternative day school program at first. However, the program, designed for students not prospering in the traditional high school setting, grew on him overtime.
"At first, I was pushing to go back, but then I realized I'm not ready to go back. There's a lot of pressure over there," he said.
"It's tough over there, and it's hard to pay attention in a much bigger environment."
Denairio was attending school at the main campus at Belleville East before he was transferred to the alternative day school program at the beginning of the school year as a result of behavior and grade issues.
District 201 launched the alternative day school program this school year to give high school students another chance to get on track rather than expelling them.
"We had a couple options and far too often the option was expulsion or lengthy suspension with no chance to get back into the groove with your peers, which usually results in failure," said Bob Dahm, former principal at Belleville West, who now oversees the alternative day school program. "There was a lot of energy into pretty negative stuff. Now we are putting a lot of energy into helping kids turn things around."
"We had kids not being successful in the regular high school setting," Superintendent Jeff Dosier said. "We needed to provide an alternative."
Dahm said the 43 students currently participating in the program were "not plugging into their home campus and struggling for a variety of reasons" and have prospered in the more intimate setting of the alternative day school program, which is housed in a portable building on the Belleville East campus. Belleville West students participating in the program are bussed to Belleville East every day.
The program is structured similarly to traditional high school with seven class periods. However, the class sizes are smaller with approximately 15 students in each class. The classes are taught by four full-time teachers, a part-time teacher and a consultant.
"These teachers teach more than their content every hour of every day. They're teaching about life," Dahm said. "It's an amazing job they do."
Math and geography teacher John Niebruegge enjoys the smaller class sizes. "It lets you build a closer relationship with the kids," he said. "You really get to know them, which helps you understand them and work with them."
Dahm said the alternative day school program is different from the night school program, which has been around for almost 40 years and gives struggling students the option to earn enough credits to graduate by taking classes during the evening Monday through Thursday at Belleville West.
Dosier said 153 students currently participate in District 201's night school program. Unlike night school, students in the alternative day school program are permitted to participate in activities at their former school -- Belleville East or West.
The alternative day school program was created with the assistance of Jerry Valentine at University of Missouri and Edwardsville School District 7 Superintendent Ed Hightower. District 7 has a successful alternative high school, known as Edwardsville High School South, which addresses the intellectual, physical and emotional needs of at-risk students ages 14 to 21.
"We have stolen a lot of ideas from successful programs, and we have taken some ideas from our night school program," Dahm said. "Educators are never afraid to steal a good idea."
More than six months into the new program, district officials, teachers, parents and even students are encouraged by the results they are seeing.
"I think it's done well. It's a new program that's growing, and with any new program, there's little kinks you have to work out," said Katy Stinson, who teaches science and civics.
English and history teacher Jolene Carver said she has seen "big improvements" in the students who have been in the program since August.
"The smaller classrooms give you the opportunity to build a rapport with these kids," Carver said. "That helps tremendously in reaching out to them and getting through to them."
Niebruegge said he's seen student growth "in a variety of ways. Not only academically in their math areas, but they are growing as people," he said, "whereas before, they may act out without thinking about it; now they really think about their actions a lot more."
Denairio praised the teachers in the program. "They handle me in ways that most teachers won't handle me," he said. "They help me get through some of this stuff. I have anger problems. There's things they say to help me calm down."
Classmate Nyosha Thomas, 16, of Belleville agrees. "They work with you more; they talk to you more," she said of the teachers. "They just don't yell at you, put you down and make you feel dumb. They bring your spirits up and try to help you."
Nyosha said she always has someone to talk to like Mr. Dahm. "He's a great person to talk to," she said.
Student Tasha Jordan, 17, of Fairview Heights, said the teachers in the program have helped her realize "a lot of stuff" like "if you keep going the way you're going, you're not really going to make it." She said the program has helped her "be a better person."
At the end of the day, Dahm said it's "ultimately, the kids choice to buy in or not to buy into" the program.
District 201 officials plan to continue the alternative day school program next year. "I'm encouraged with where I believe we can go," Dahm said.
Dosier said he would like to expand the program, which has a maximum capacity of 46 students, but funding is an issue. The program is currently paid for with Title 1 money, which must be used to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students. Dosier said just more than $467,000 is allocated for staffing the alternative day school program this school year.
"We would like to expand, but funding is so tight right now. We are careful with every dollar we have to allocate," Dosier said. "What we have to look at is the cost of students not being successful. We feel like this is a program that's worth the money it costs. It's worth it to see 46 students be successful."
In addition, Dosier said the alternative day school program is a less expensive alternative than placing the students in a special education setting. "From our point of view, this is a little bit more per student than we would spend in the regular instructional setting, but this is less than half of what a special ed placement would cost," he said.
Parent Rosalind Rodgers, of Belleville, said she's glad her son Jahkeese Rodgers-Robinson, who previously attended Belleville West, is in the program. She praised his latest progress report, which had four A's, two B's and one C.
"He's doing well," Rodgers said of Jahkeese. "It's a really good program. My son doesn't think it is, but I think it is. It's working. He needs some structure. He is a little rough around the edges, but we are still working on him."
Like Rodgers, Denairio's mother Regina Austin, of Belleville, said she really likes the program. "It has helped him (Denairio) out tremendously," she said.
Austin praised Dahm and his ability to keep parents involved and informed. "Mr. Dahm, he's just wonderful," she said. "He's always getting the parents involved, and he keeps me informed. He's really helping him (Denairio) out a lot."
Parents of Belleville West and East students often call to see if their child can get into the alternative day school program, Dahm said.
The decision to place a student into the program is made with recommendations from parents, teachers and administrators. In addition, the school board has placed some students in the program due to discipline issues, Dosier said. The alternative day school program gives students an "opportunity to be successful," he said.
Every semester, teacher Katy Stinson said each student is assessed in regards to their strengths and weaknesses and a determination is made about whether they are ready to return to their former school. Administrators, teachers, parents and students are involved in the decision. "Everyone has a say," Stinson said.
Without the program, Nyosha said she wouldn't be in school. "I don't think I would make it," Nyosha said, if she had to go back to Belleville West.
If it wasn't for the program, Tasha said she would be "nowhere good."