With the EmberHope facilities reopening last year on the Youthville campus in Newton, an opportunity presented itself.
New USD 373 administrator Tyler Swalley came before the Newton Board of Education this week to speak on that opportunity — or, more formally, Opportunity Academy — as the district and EmberHope work jointly to relaunch educational services on campus.
Both entities had partnered to offer services at Eby Learning Center before the Youthville campus was mostly shuttered in 2011. Youthville, a division of EmberHope Inc., started a Youth Residential Center II (YRCII) on the Newton campus in 2015, serving girls 10 to 18 years of age who are in the state’s custody as a “Child In Need of Care" — and efforts to bolster the campus were reinvigorated last year when EmberHope moved its headquarters back to Newton, with the learning center targeted as the next step.
Following a pilot program this semester offered to Youthville residents, Opportunity Academy principal Swalley updated the school board on its progress as the academy gets ready to open its doors officially in the 2019-20 school year (for both Youthville residents and Newton High School students who would be better served by an alternative school program).
Presenting an overview of the school model, Swalley noted he has a vision for small class sizes at Opportunity Academy — with one teacher and one aide per 10 students, to help create a family environment and give the Youthville residents something "they can connect to."
Due to the transitory nature of many of the residents, Swalley also noted the schedule at Opportunity Academy would be fairly flexible — working on nine-week quarters instead of semesters.
"The reason for that is we will take three to four classes in those nine weeks and those students will then, in turn, be able to potentially make up a year of work or take care of their entire year of English in the first semester," Swalley said. "Oftentimes, these foster children are passed around and they fall behind on credits and they can't keep up, or their credits don't transfer from one school to the next, so we wanted to make sure that they can graduate and they have an opportunity to get an education."
Additionally, using nine-week quarters is something that will both allow students to work ahead if they complete courses early or take extra time so they can learn at their own pace.
Unique learning paces is a major part of why the Opportunity Academy is opening enrollment to Newton High School students as well — as the alternative school can help those students who may have slipped through the cracks and fallen behind.
"Some of our students need more time; the rigidity of going through and having to get through curriculum by the end of the semester can be very difficult for students and students can get left behind. I know that from experience," Swalley, a former NHS teacher, said.
Enrollment is intended to be made up of 50 percent Youthville residents, with those students also able to participate in athletics and electives (namely career and technical education courses and fine arts) through NHS. Swalley noted there will also be some project-based learning opportunities offered, pointing out students in the pilot program were working on planting a garden earlier this week.
Questions from the board surrounded whether the classroom would be blended or not, which Swalley said would be the case both as to not overload any classroom as well as exposing students to others from different backgrounds.
"Our hope is to kind of balance the different needs in each classroom, the different types of behaviors or personalities, so that we don't inundate one classroom with a specific type of student," Swalley said.
Based on the district's own current Railer Academy program, Opportunity Academy is planning to utilize Odysseyware in its curriculum — though there will be certain restrictions given Youthville is a "Child in Need of Care" facility. As such, Google Chromebooks utilized for the courses will remain on the school campus and all devices of USD 373 students will be locked down.
Currently, Swalley is working with EmberHope liaisons on the contracts (regarding behavior, expectations, etc.) for Youthville students, while also finalizing the application process for NHS students wanting to attend the academy. While it is meant to help high school students in need (potentially giving preference to those in danger of not graduating), Swalley said those students also have to understand getting that kind of chance is a privilege — like a student who turned in an application recently who Swalley knows personally is fearful of the NHS environment.
"That's the kind of kid that we want to have in this environment, kids that need additional help," Swalley said. "The student needs to want to come be a part of this program."