WEST LIBERTY – “I’ve never met a bad kid yet. They just make bad choices, sometimes because they don’t know any other way. It’s my challenge to help them make better choices. Many are like square pegs being shoved into a round hole,” Jerry Lenhart said.
Lenhart, the principal and teacher of Transitions Academy, hopes the school can fill the gap left when Adriel School closed in February. Adriel shut down the school and its residential housing program following complaints of staff abusing drugs with youths and showing pornography to youths. The academy opened its doors March 1.
Transitions Academy, an alternative school, offers students unsuccessful in their traditional school classrooms an option to continue their schooling with more personal attention. Lenhart managed Adriel School before it closed. He said he still saw a need for this option. The academy is located in the former Adriel School, at 500 N. Detroit St. in West Liberty.
The Midwest Regional Educational Service Center (ESC) manages the program, leasing the space from Adriel. Adriel still operates an office on the property and handles foster care programs.
The school serves students in grades kindergarten to 12, and there are currently seven students enrolled, Lenhart said.
More than a school
Transitions Academy operates more like a one-room schoolhouse, Lenhart said. Instead of students going from class to class, they tend to stay in one room to learn various school subjects. As more students attend, more staff will be added and students will be split into separate classrooms with similar grade levels, Lenhart said.
The school is also different in how it deals with discipline.
“The tolerance stick has to be a lot larger,” he said. “We have to have an understanding of what these kids are having issues with and understand those issues, to help them get past them. Our tolerance is a lot greater for the behaviors that got them into their predicament with regular education.”
Lenhart said most students go to school and pick up appropriate behaviors without too much additional assistance. For whatever reason, the students that go to the alternative school did not do that, and they need help to do so. In those situations, Lenhart said he works to develop a rapport with students and work with them to determine what the problem is and how to best navigate it in the future.
“A lot of what I do is have dialogue between myself and the student about the problems they are having and teach them better choices,” he said. “It’s unfair to expect a kid to act in a way they were never shown.”
The school can serve as an option for students before suspension or expulsion from their home schools, Lenhart said.
“When a student gets suspended or expelled, what do they do? Sleep late. It’s kind of a vacation for some, and we don’t want that. It doesn’t teach them anything. We want to teach them to make better choices,” he said. “To me, in a lot of ways, suspension doesn’t really serve a purpose, especially for repeat offenders. We want to do the work and deal with issues that would have got them suspended.”
The school’s curriculum is the same as what is required in all Ohio public schools. Lenhart said students who attend the alternative school are not bad students, necessarily, though the behaviors that interfered with their instruction in their home districts may have put them behind in learning.
“When they come here, a lot of kids are academically behind,” Lenhart said. “We find out where they are academically, we remediate to fill in those gaps, then move them forward. Once they’ve learned to make better choices and have filled in those gaps, they eventually will return to regular education and succeed.”
Part of that intervention involves the parents, Lenhart said.
“I want them to be partners in this relationship, to help their kids,” he said. “If we don’t work together to help these kids succeed, they turn 18 and don’t graduate, and we all pay for that … The last thing I ever want to do or will do is blame a parent. I will do everything I can to involve them to help them help me help their child.”
The decision to return students to their home districts involves the school district, Transitions Academy staff, parents and students, Lenhart said.
Transitions Academy currently accepts students from school districts in Logan, Hardin and Shelby counties, which are represented by the Midwest Regional ESC. The school will accept students from Champaign and Union counties as needed. The Champaign-Madison ESC operates an alternative school in Bellefontaine, and both agencies are working together to not compete for students.
The Madison-Champaign ESC operates Mac-A-Cheek Learning Center in Bellefontaine, which deals with students with special education, emotional issues or developmental disabilities. Lenhart said students in special education could also go to the Transitions Academy – he is trained to teach those students – but there are not any at the school at this time.
Districts that use the Transitions Academy pay the Midwest Regional ESC a per-day charge for their students to attend, and they bus them to and from the school, Lenhart said. It is not a residential program like Adriel had.
Families who think their child would do better at Transitions Academy should talk with their home school district, Lenhart said.
“These are wonderful kids. They just need a chance,” he said. “They need lots of compassion, lots of understanding and lots of empathy. They need to be treated with a different set of gloves. Once they start to come to school and feel like they have a little more control again, a little more success, I try to make that snowball grow and capitalize on that.
“Don’t get me wrong. The kids coming here are going to screw up,” Lenhart added. “But they are not to be jailed or tossed away or forgotten. They are here to be helped.”
For more information, call Lenhart at 937-465-0361.
Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.