Teachers Find Success in the Alternative
Writer / Kris Parker
Photographer / Forrest Mellott
“When you are a young teacher, you have the vision of helping students reach their goals and dream endless possibilities. Sometimes that vision can become clouded by the realities of education. Center Grove Alternative Academy (CGAA) has renewed that energy in me in being able to help students achieve success. There is nothing more rewarding in education than seeing one of your students reach a goal, no matter how big or small,” said Angie Marsh, the math teacher for CGAA.
Angie had been teaching seventh grade math for 16 years. While she enjoyed her job, she sensed there was something more for her to do. “I felt like I was at a point in my career that I was running out of tricks in my bag. I’d had a good run with seventh grade math, but I didn’t think I had another 16 years of it in me,” she said.
At that same time, the Center Grove Administration had approved a math teacher position at the Alternative Academy. “I met with Beth [Bryant, the CGAA Director], and I prayed about it and took a leap of faith and here I am! And I love it!” said Angie. “I loved the seventh grade, too; it was hard to leave the safety and comfort of it. I worked with my best friends….we were that close. I cried when I told them. However, on the flipside, the people here are just amazing. It’s fun. It’s not work. How blessed am I?”
The opportunity to be at CGAA was the first chance Angie had to be involved with alternative education. However, for Mike Leavitt, the CGAA English teacher, it was more like coming home. “My wife already taught in the district at Maple Grove Elementary and I wanted to teach in the community in which we lived. I heard about the position at the Alternative Academy and was immediately interested. My first job out of college was a non-teaching position coordinating an out-of-school suspension program in Columbus, IN for the two local high schools. So my career has really come full circle. I began in alternative education and am happy to have returned. Alternative education is what I have always embraced and enjoyed,” he said. “By far, the most rewarding aspect of working at the Alternative Academy is seeing students graduate who never thought they could or would. So many of our students come in broken with a negative attitude toward school and learning. To see them reach their goals and prove to themselves that they really can do it is so rewarding.”
A little-known division of Center Grove High School, the CGAA is tucked into the former Maple Grove Elementary School. Housed within the Professional Resource Center, the Academy shares space with both the CARE Pantry (which the students and staff from CGAA operate) and the Center Grove Police Department.
The five-person staff at CGAA works with students to not only teach them the traditional classroom subjects, but also to teach them life skills. Some of it “is about empowering them to be adults and preparing them for once they move on from here,” said Angie. Some of the topics include, but are in no way limited to, job interviews, resume writing, dressing professionally and serving their community. When students enter CGAA, they have the opportunity to choose between volunteering at the on-site CARE Pantry, the Midwest Food Bank, or in one of the Center Grove Elementary schools within an assigned classroom.
This is one of the qualities about the Academy that takes aspects of students’ lives and utilizes them to their full advantage. “This is a holistic school. It’s more than just school: it’s real-life application. We want to turn these kids on to education and help them to become lifelong learners. We want to empower them, help them walk in confidence and give them a voice. They experience a lot of growth in a short period of time,” said Beth.
“I take a group of students to Midwest Food Bank every Friday. This has become one of my favorite things about CGAA because it allows me to see and work side by side with students outside of the classroom. Perhaps more importantly, students get to see me outside of the classroom and we get to know each other on a different level,” said Mike.
Overwhelmingly, the staff of CGAA feels that a connection with a student is the largest key to a student’s success. “We could all drip with degrees, but without a relationship with the students, we have nothing,” said Beth. “We know what’s happening in these kids’ lives. We try to be their ‘safe place.’”
“The most challenging part is hearing the stories of students and what they are dealing with on a daily basis outside of school. They face so many obstacles and are presented with so many non-school–related challenges before they even arrive at the Academy that at times it’s tough to motivate them and engage them in their schoolwork. But that moment when I connect and reach a student makes it so worthwhile,” said Mike.
The Academy’s student body represents approximately one-tenth of Center Grove High School’s senior class population; in 2014, they graduated 47 students, boasting an average graduation rate of about 98 percent. “We don’t look at who is a four-year student versus who is a five-year student. If they graduate, they graduate. That is how we look at it,” said Beth. “Fairness is not about everyone getting the same thing; it’s about everyone getting what they need.”
Just like Center Grove High School, CGAA is on the Block schedule. Some of the differences between the two schools, however, include a 1-15 teacher-to-student ratio as well as an online mastery curriculum that allows each student to work at his or her own pace. However, curriculum and the teacher-to-student ratios are not the only distinctions between CGHS and CGAA.
Students come to CGAA on a continuing basis. Each month, Beth meets with the CGHS counselors to determine if there are any students who might find benefit by transitioning to the Academy. It is limited to mostly seniors, but some juniors find their way into the school, as well.
Many of the students who profit from CGAA do not find their best learning niche in a mainstream, traditional classroom. In addition to setting their own pace for their schoolwork, CGAA allows students the flexibility to attend school in either the morning or the afternoon, and attend C9 or work-study in the opposite block of time. “We help remove the barriers that keep them from learning,” said Beth.
“We’ve had students who are major breadwinners for their families. These students need to work, which is why their attendance was so spotty before [at CGHS]. On the other hand, they might be living on their own…17 years old and living on their own. They have to work,” said Angie. “That’s not all; there are many reasons students come here.”
A Team Effort
“CGAA is an amazing place because of the five wonderful, caring people who make up the entire staff. We have an incredible leader in Beth who is our navigator in alternative education. I am just a small part of a group of people who all want what is best for our students. It is a blessing for me to be a part of CGAA,” said Angie.
In addition, the staff gives kudos for the success of CGAA to the outside support they have received. “One thing that has been helpful is the community support and the administration support. They have an understanding of alternative education and that information can be presented in many different ways. If we didn’t have that support, where would we be? I’m very thankful,” said Beth.
For additional information regarding the Center Grove Alternative Academy or the CARE Pantry, please visit the Center Grove High School website at centergrove.k12.in.us, and click on the “Academics” tab.