Clover’s Blue Eagle Academy making a difference in kids’ lives

news@enquirerherald.comApril 19, 2013 

— Danielle Delucchi was ready to drop out of Clover High School when she came to Clover’s Blue Eagle Academy.

The small, close-knit alternative school program “made a huge difference for me.”

Danielle, 17, was working asa waitress and had never considered college, but her experience at the academy inspired her. She’s set to graduate this year and attend York Technical College’s child care program.

She credits her success to the smaller classes and more attention.

“They have made me feel loved,” Danielle said.

Those are the kind of success stories Blue Eagle Academy Director Hezekiah Massey and the rest of the staff love to hear. Massey, 40, who became director of the program last summer, believes no student is so troubled he or she can’t be reached by educators.

Shifting culture

And Blue Eagle Academy, too, has undergone a dramatic transformation under Massey’s leadership. He has sought to change a culture that focused heavily on punishment to helping kids learn acceptable ways to deal with conflict.

“That started a culture change for the students,” Massey said. “No longer are students looking at this school as the bad place. They’re actually asking about it and telling their friends that Blue Eagle Academy is a great place to learn.”

And the Clover school district is investing in the idea, too. The school board voted last year to spend up to $300,000 to expand BEA with a Junior Blue Eagle program for third- to fifth-graders.

Until this year, BEA only served middle and high school students. However, district officials said they saw a need because elementary schools didn’t have a consistent way to deal with students who had persistent behavior problems.

The money was given to hire two teachers, a guidance counselor and a certified behavior specialist, who develops new strategies for the students and helps them transition into regular school settings.

Blue Eagle Academy, at the Clover School District Resource Center on Clinton Avenue, has 86 students in third to 12th grades . Of those, 13 students are in elementary school, while 30 are in middle school and 43 are in high school.

Students are referred from Clover schools for problems that range from absenteeism to academic troubles and behavior problems. Parents or students can request enrollment in the Blue Eagle Academy if they have trouble functioning in the regular school setting. But for many students, the program is their last chance — the sole alternative to expulsion.

The program offers much lower student-to-teacher ratios than regular classrooms, with class sizes ranging from two to a dozen. This year, it has expanded high school curriculum offerings through a hybrid program with Clover High, where BEA students can take elective classes in the mornings.

Senior Tyler Walden, 18, said he came to the academy in November because he had too many school absences. It was his only option to graduate, and he wants to finish high school because he has enlisted in the Marines.

“I’ve paid a lot more attention to my school work here, I think because I’m not in an environment where I have a choice on that,” Tyler said. “I have to do my school work here.”

Physical in a new way

Tyler also participates in a new intramural basketball program there. He said the academy “helps get a lot of us on track. And I like how they combine the physical and educational together. It seems like it’s a lot more helpful.”

The existing program has changed dramatically from its early days. When the alternative school program was created in January 1999, it was based on a military model. Students started with a four-week “boot camp” that involved a lot of physical training.

“Students, as they entered, were referred to only as a number until they had earned the right to be called their name,” Massey said, “which is a far cry from where we are today.”

The school moved away from the military model during the past four years. BEA still has a two-week “basic training” for new students, which focuses on life skills, though some physical aspects of the program remain. “If they misbehave,” said Linda Dunlap, administrative assistant, “I can still tell them to drop and give me 25 push ups.”

But Manecia McNeil, the academy’s new behavior specialist, said the Blue Eagle Academy’s discipline program is based on the theory that inappropriate behavior is motivated by a need that’s not being met. Students are given choices to meet that need, she said.

Staff members also model appropriate behavior, remaining calm and not getting angry, she said. “For a lot of our kids, they are used to being talked at, screamed at,” McNeil said. “So that is a paradigm shift for them.”

Another new aspect of the program is You University, in which students meet with staff leaders for an hour each Friday to talk about “self mastery” skills. Skills may include anger management, self esteem and disappointment, as well as making healthy choices and practicing good etiquette.

“For the first couple weeks, it was kind of volatile for the girls, because there were a lot of topics that we discussed that opened up a lot of wounds,” McNeil said. She said students who disagreed had to learn how to deal with views that conflicted with their own.

“The maturity level is something that we are working on,” McNeil said.

Massey said students receive encouragements to good behavior, instead of discouragements like punishment. “We encourage them to be better, which we feel creates a more inviting atmosphere here,” he said.

For example, he said, one incentive is the co-ed intramural basketball program, in which Tyler participates. Students are allowed to play if their behavior is in line, he said. “If their behavior is not in line, they not only hurt themselves — they hurt the team,” he said.

Massey said he has plans to expand the intramural athletic incentive program with other sports, including indoor soccer and volleyball.

He also is evaluating the need for the elementary school program in each grade, noting there’s more demand for it in fifth grade than in third. He said the BEA elementary program is one of just four elementary-level alternative school programs in the state.

“I think the concept is still novel,” he said.

Smaller classes

Amanda Combs, a fifth-grade teacher at BEA who leads a class of about a half dozen students, said the smaller setting enables her to get to know her students in a way that is difficult with a larger group.

She said teachers have more flexibility to work with each student and to build self esteem. “We have some students who excel here who can’t in a regular classroom,” Combs said. “The smaller setting is good for a lot of our kids.”

Dakota Bishop, a 15-year-old student at BEA, showed what a difference the program can make when he took the initiative to write a letter describing his experience at BEA. At Massey’s request, Dakota read the letter to the Clover school board last month.

Dakota said he was going to be held back in seventh grade because of his grades. His only option to be promoted to eighth grade was to attend BEA. At the time, he wrote, he was “not so respectful” and had no confidence.

“I also did not pay attention very well, and thought that I was just not smart, and I was thinking of quitting in the future,” he said. But BEA, he said, “was the best thing for me.”

“When I walk into BEA every morning, I feel at home,” Dakota said. “Because the staff is not just your ordinary teacher, but they are like my mom/dad away from home. If I ever have a problem, they are always there for me, no matter what my situation is.”

Dakota, now in ninth grade, said he looks forward to graduating from BEA. “For once, I actually don’t mind going to school,” he told the board, “because I feel at home.”

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