YORK — When York One Academy opened almost 15 years ago, Principal Ethel Engrum-Bankhead said people “thought of it as a school for bad kids.” One of her goals was to change that perception. The alternative school that Engrum-Bankhead and others helped the York district establish in 1998 has since allowed hundreds of students who likely would have been expelled or dropped out of school to earn diplomas. Its success was a key to changing perceptions.
When York One Academy opened almost 15 years ago, Principal Ethel Engrum-Bankhead said people “thought of it as a school for bad kids.” One of her goals was to change that perception.
The alternative school that Engrum-Bankhead and others helped the York district establish in 1998 has since allowed hundreds of students who likely would have been expelled or dropped out of school to earn diplomas. Its success was a key to changing perceptions.
“I’ve seen the town of York embrace York One Academy and provide all kinds of support,” said Engrum-Bankhead, a York native. Students, too, have served the community, visiting a local adult day care program and doing service learning at sites such as the police and fire departments.
Former students sometimes return to York One to thank the staff, she said, and high school graduation is especially sweet.
“In June, we stand up and send high fives to the graduates,” said Engrum-Bankhead. “Usually we have 12 to 15 graduates who passed through York One Academy, and would not have made it if they had not been here.”
But Engrum-Bankhead, 66, is retiring at the end of June, passing the program that she has shepherded since its beginning into the hands of successor Shelton Clinton, assistant principal for the past year.
The alternative school program, located on Pinckney Street, serves 70 to 90 students in grades five to 12. Students are referred there for behavior problems, absenteeism and academic troubles, among other issues.
Students stay at York One for at least one semester, she said, and some decide to graduate there. The program offers character development, counseling and other services in a small, intimate setting. Its aim is to help students resolve the issues and transition back into a regular school.
Oliver Love, a York Comprehensive High School assistant principal who worked under Engrum-Bankhead for the first seven years as assistant principal, said she put together the pieces that made the program work.
“Instead of a punitive discipline approach, she used a therapeutic approach. Instead of responding to behavior, you look for the root cause of behavior,” Love said. “If a child is not attending school, it’s not always because they don’t like school. Most of the time, it’s some kind of emotional need that’s not being met.”
Engrum-Bankhead had a 30-year career as an English teacher, then a middle and high school principal in Prince George’s County, Md., before she moved back to York in 1998. The oldest of four children, she came home to take care of her ailing mother.
In Maryland, she had turned around a failing middle school in just three years – drawing on her training from a Yale University summer program where she and other school administrators there had been sent to learn about how to improve troubled schools.
When the York school district asked Engrum-Bankhead to take on the challenge of launching York One Academy, she used many of the same ingredients that had been successful in Maryland: Involving parents, developing the staff and connecting families with community resources.
One of the first issues at York One, she said, was improving the visual appearance of the school, in the former Jefferson Elementary building, where Engrum-Bankhead had attended school as a child.
“For the first year here, every time I walked up and down the halls, I saw my teachers in my mind,” Engrum-Bankhead said. “It just brought back a lot of those memories.”
As York One was preparing to open, she said, new and returning teachers volunteered to show up a week early to paint walls, spruce up the entrance and work on the grounds.
Love said creating the program required Engrum-Bankhead to do lot of research on alternative schools to figure out what would work – and it was extremely challenging. “Even when times were hard, she stayed with it until she got the fruit she was looking for,” he said.
Engrum-Bankhead said one key is a no-fault approach to families. “You never hear me use the word poverty, but these are underserved students,” she said. “For some, it’s situational. For some, it’s generational.”
Love said York One aims to develop a custom approach to meeting the needs of each student, whether that be counseling for anger issues or after-school tutoring for homework. If it did not work, Love said, they would reexamine the problem and try another approach.
Clinton said the program is very structured from the time students enter the building until they leave. Families are included with monthly parenting classes and meetings about academic progress, she said, and character education is integrated throughout the program.
“We don’t just say, you’re supposed to know that when you come here,” Clinton said, referring to character. “We need to meet the students where they are and get them to go where they can go. I don’t expect them to meet me where I am.”
Clinton also said Engrum-Bankhead made a lot of connections with community resources such as Keystone, Catawba Mental Health, the Department of Juvenile Justice, PATH and Tender Hearts Ministries, among others. “That’s something we cannot do without,” she said.
The program has been recognized for its success. Engrum said new alternative school directors from around the stated come to York One to observe, learn and gather ideas. And two years ago, Engrum was named the 2011 S.C. Outstanding Alternative Administrator of the Year.
Engrum said she wants to spend more time with her family, including her son in Virginia and two grandchildren, and enjoy leisure. She is confident in Clinton’s leadership, but her involvement makes it hard to leave. “I want to leave the school in a good place,” she said. “I sort of see it as my baby.”
Clinton, an experienced school administrator who previously worked in Gaston County, N.C., said she appreciates having the chance to learn about the York One program for the past year. “She put a lot of hard work, a lot of blood, sweat and tears, into this program,” Clinton said. “She really wanted to make sure that it has the success that’s it has had.”