Alternative to the old alternative

October 15, 2018

 

Once known as a boot camp for misfits, JP Torres Success Academy is refocusing its program toward learning, but challenges continue

 

 

  Andrew is now on his fourth year at J.P. Torres Success Academy, where he had been transferred due to his difficulty fitting in at George Washington High School and later at Simon Sanchez High School.

 

“This school has so much potential. It blows those other schools away,” said Andrew, who is in his 20s. “Sanchez just sent me here. I wasn’t even told I was on a list to leave. They just sent me away.”

 

For many years, what was formerly known as J.P. Torres Alternative School, was synonymous with “banishment,” bearing the stigma as disciplinary ground for misfits.

 

In 2015, J.P. Torres redesigned its curriculum as it works toward rebranding the school from a behavioral institution for students who needed to get disciplined to a success-oriented academy that focuses on learning.

 

Andrew has witnessed such transition. “There’s a lot more leniency now. Before, JP was almost like (Division of Youth Affairs),” he recalled. “We had to always walk with our hands behind our back and arm length a part. We couldn’t even bring a bag. We had to come to school with a binder. For detention, we’d pick leaves from the pine trees.”

 

Under JPTSA’s new mission, the word “alternative” will no longer bear its old derogatory connotation. “JP is an alternative school, which simply means that we do things a little differently than that of the traditional school setting,” said Dexter Fullo, the principal of what is now known as J.P Torres Success Academy after the official name-change last year. “Specifically, we’re an alternative school focused on  credit recovery.”

 In December last year, the Guam Department of Education reported that 2017-2018 high school graduation rate in public schools was at 82 percent, compared to the previous school year’s 79 percent. This rise certainly implies success and hard work of both learners and their teachers. However, what about the other 18 percent? What about those who are unable to keep up or fit in with the grind?

 

JPTSA was designed as an alternative school to help increase graduation rates. GDOE recognized the need to help all students succeed without lowering the standards. Hence, JPTSA was designed to help students who struggle in the traditional school setting and interventions with a supportive environment.

 

The students come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different levels of ability and different circumstances that contribute to their academic failures. Most of the students are 18 years and older. “For whatever reason, they tend to struggle in the regular school setting. We only accept kids who are behind in credits,” Fullo said.

 

In line with its new thrust, students referred to JPTSA are fully screened. The academy only accepts those who are serious about graduating and interested in taking the pathway to success. “For the most part we’ve been fairly successful,” Fullo said.

 

The challenge is to help the students discover their potential, he added. “Many of the experiences that our students have been through are unimaginable,” Fullo said. “And yet, they persist. This speaks volumes about their character. Our students are tough because they’ve had to be and they are resilient.”

 

 Some of the struggles are due to poor decision-making skills; others are due to circumstances beyond their control, such as becoming family caretakers or becoming homeless. Due to their difficulties, these students could not really focus on education because they were preoccupied with their survival.

 

“One of the main challenges students faced in the regular school is they didn’t feel connected to an adult,” said Fullo. “That’s why we want to make sure that all of our students here feel connected—if they have an issue, they can talk to us. We take time to build their trust.”

 

Others fall through the cracks in public schools due to the size of the class. Where there are 30-35 students, it is hard to get their teacher’s attention. “Here we have class sizes 10-12 and they can’t hide. Our teachers keep screening and assessing that the students know their work,” Fullo said.

 

 Although some students have made their way to JPTSA through recommendation, many of them have taken the initiative to interview in the hopes of acceptance into the academy’s program.

 

“As JP evolves into their third year, we have realized that a strong curriculum and instruction is not enough, so the teachers also act as student advocates. We have a dedicated time to address every student's social-emotional wellbeing. We not only focus on goal setting, but we are now teaching our students the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, as most of our students do not have these core principles,” Fullo said.

“One of the main challenges students faced in the regular school is they didn’t feel connected to an adult,” said Fullo. “That’s why we want to make sure that all of our students here feel connected—if they have an issue, they can talk to us. We take time to build their trust.”

Working with the community is a component of the academy’s program. “It surely does take a village to raise a child,” Fullo said. 

 

 JPTSA has teamed up with the Pacific Human Resource Service, Auto-Spot, Guam Army National Guard, Department of Labor and other agencies to assist students in a variety of ways. “Although they do not lower the academic standards, their levels of support for every student varies depending on the need, as they focus on issues of equity,” Fullo said.

 

JPTSA has been selective with people it hires. “We have to attract the best and brightest teachers,” Fullo said. But despite having the money to attract the best teachers, JPTSA still faces the same challenges as any other GDOE school. “Our budget has been decreasing as we work toward maximizing our resources,” the principal said.

 

The school is down to four school aides, one counselor, and no nurse, no psychologists and no social worker. The former alternative school had over 10 school aides, a school nurse, three social workers and three counselors.

 

 A teacher who requested anonymity said there are no books for the particular subject that he teaches. “We have a library but we don’t have textbooks for arts and humanities. It’s the same problem with other regular schools, I guess,” the teacher said. “But I believe GDOE needs to give JP Torres a little more attention.”

 

 With limited resources, the teachers focus on good teaching and the support necessary for the students, such as instructional coaches, Fullo said.“One of the interesting things here, and students will admit it, JP is their last option,” said Fullo. “They know if they don’t make it here, they’ll drop out of high school or their chances of a better life will drastically decrease. We teach them that. Without a diploma their jobs won’t be fruitful.”

 

The adult learners meet all the time. “We have this thing called ‘Flexible Fridays’ where we see where every student ranks, so we know who needs additional support.  We build in intervention time in the morning and before school is over, to help those who need help,” Fullo said.

 

JPTSA does a lot of things different from regular GDOE schools. Classes, for example, have flexible scheduling to accommodate the students who work—some of whom have two jobs —  or those who have domestic responsibilities.

 

“So we do course by conference where they come in at a certain time. It’s kind of a flip classroom where they do work online and they come in and we discuss and assess their learning,” Fullo said.

 

But giving students flexibility doesn’t mean tolerating laxity. Fullo said he must be tough on these students, who are already adults and the academy is their last chance to receive their diploma.

 

However, it hasn’t all been exactly a walk in the park.  “The reality is that for the majority of our students, their struggles are waiting for them the moment they leave our campus. We are faced with the forces beyond our control,” he said.

 

Class attendance needs a lot of work because the students are at the mercy of the Department of Public Works’ bus operations. Only three buses as available. “Our school starts at 6:45 a.m., which means that a lot of our students wake up at 3:30 a.m. or 4 a.m. to catch the bus,” Fullo said. “It’s hard for some students, especially if they work or take care of their family. It can be hard to come daily. And we must provide interventions to see how they can attend school.” 

 

Fullo and his team continue to work on rebranding the school as a success academy instead as just another alternative school. “People would think if you go to JP, you’re a bad student or you can’t behave. A lot are that way, but we no longer focus on their behavior. We now focus on making them learn. Since then, a lot of students step up to the plate, they’re well-behaved and we don’t have fights or riots, (contrary to) what a lot think,” Fullo said.

 

Lily spent two years in JFK High School before moving to JPTSA and she hasn’t looked back since. “My relationship with my teachers here, compared to JFK, is amazing. We have village circle and it helps students and teachers know each other better,” said the 17-year-old. “If I continued at JFK, I would have flunked my classes or even dropped out. They didn’t give us opportunities; they gave us punishments. When I tell people I go JP, they immediately think I’m a bad kid, but I explain that it’s a credit recovery and JP has people willing to help us get a diploma.”

 

As for the academy’s success, Fullo said the obvious gauge is whether students get to graduate. “If that’s the measure, sure, I’d say we’ve been pretty successful,” he said.

 

Two years ago, 57 students graduated. The number went up to 70 last year — out of a potential 75 possible graduates.  “These are 120 students who withdrew from school, or were about to be withdrawn from school,” Fullo said. “We now gave the island 120+ students a better chance at life as this diploma now opens the options for a better future.”  

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