Prioritizing student success in all areas

How an alternative high school attempts to re-engage kids during pandemic

PORT ORCHARD — Discovery Alternative High School is seeking to prioritize social-emotional well-being and holistic success for students in order to re-engage them after the hardships of the pandemic, and keep them on track to academic and life success, even while the world remains uncertain.

The school has been using three grants from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to fund different steps to these goals.

“The grant money is kind of helping us put a picture together of how we can connect with families and students and get the support that they need to re-engage with school,” Drea Bowen said. Her organization, One Heart Wild, has provided on-site mental health support to the high school for years, funded through one such OSPI grant.

Discovery’s mission as an alternative high school is to offer “a supportive, flexible Alternative Learning Environment that ensures student achievement and develops individuals who become successful, productive citizens,” according to their website.

COVID-19 meant some kids struggled more with online school to complete classes while others stopped attending altogether. Tack on potential family, economic and health concerns, and the past year and a half has been difficult, to say the least, for high schoolers trying to graduate.

From 2019 to 2020, Discovery’s graduation rate went from 42.3% to 37.7%. For the 2019-20 school year, regular attendance decreased across the state to 82% from 83.6% the year prior.

To combat this, Discovery did something it has never done before. It held its first summer school.

Summer program

Susan Mosby, a Discovery counselor, said they had no expectations for the program but she felt they did an amazing job. Thirty-three percent of their student body participated, and the school had a 75% completion rate of classes. Four students were able to graduate.

One of those students was Kaile Wayne, who just finished her last classes to graduate and is waiting on her diploma.

Now that she’s done with high school, Wayne said she feels a lot better. “I’m really happy I got through it, even if it meant switching to Discovery. It was a lot easier there.”

Wayne had been a student at South Kitsap High School, but when the school went online, she struggled to keep up with the fast pace of classes. Attending online school at Discovery was a much better experience for Wayne. The pace of instruction and the communication from the staff made her education experience better, she said.

One of the things that made a difference for Wayne was the staff at Discovery. “They really try to get to know you and help you.”

As a high school graduate, Wayne said her next step is focusing on getting her driver’s license and obtaining a good first job.

The summer program was meant to also give continuity to students returning in the fall, said Pat Oster, Discovery principal, and letting them know someone was there for them. In addition to keeping students on track academically, Oster said staying connected with kids to make sure they were safe, fed and having their needs met was crucial.

An article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in August 2020 discussed the mental health consequences of the pandemic life disruptions for adolescents and young adults. Disruptions to physical activity, sleep and time use, as well as substantial declines in mental health, were found to have occurred as a result of the pandemic.

“Last year was so disjointed and we had so many students that we either missed or who just kind of fell off the face of the earth,” Oster said. The intent behind the program was to remedy this and keep connections with kids to make sure they weren’t feeling alone during the summer, the principal said.

Social-emotional learning

Heading into the fall, educators at the high school will be incorporating social-emotional learning into their curricula.

According to OSPI’s webpage, social-emotional learning is “broadly understood as a process through which individuals build awareness and skills in managing emotions, setting goals, establishing relationships, and making responsible decisions that support success in school and in life.”

Washington state has social-emotional learning standards and benchmarks, which teachers used to develop lesson plans. These have been posted on OSPI’s website and can be accessed by educators across the state. The six standards include self-awareness, self-management, self-efficacy, social awareness, social management and social engagement.

“Social-emotional learning is super important, especially going into this fall where we have students who haven’t been in school for many months and just getting them supported back into school,” Mosby said.

The idea for social-emotional curriculum came about through the process of school improvement and planning, where Oster said the need over the past three to four years was in clearly making sure students’ basic needs and their social-emotional needs were being met. At an alternative school like Discovery, Oster said the student body often has higher support needs.

“We’ve got to take care of these needs first so that we can get to the learning,” Oster said.

Social-emotional skills are important for helping kids learn how to be tolerant of each other, be able to work in groups, speak up for themselves and about their emotions, and regulate themselves, Bowen said.

“If students come in with a high level of anxiety or have a lot of stuff going on at home, and they’re just activated from that and just trying to survive, it’s really hard for them to come up with the resources to sit in a class and actually have a prefrontal cortex that’s available for learning,” Bowen said.

Teaching social-emotional skills in the classroom has been shown to benefit students for the rest of their lives. In an article published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2015, a correlation was found between social-emotional skills and key outcomes in adulthood, such as education, employment, criminal activity, substance use and mental health.

Community health clinic

For students who are entering or returning to Discovery, Bowen said they’ll also be reworking the application process to get more information about what gaps they might have to address, including potential needs for housing, food, mental health and other areas of concern.

“[We’re] trying to get a better understanding of how they’ve been impacted and what they need going forward,” Bowen said.

And one way staff at Discovery can connect students with services they might need is the school’s new campus health clinic, which has partnered with Peninsula Community Health to get care for students on campus.

This is the first full year for the clinic, and Oster is thrilled. He’s been working for 10 years to get the clinic at the school. There will be mental health, drug and alcohol intervention as well as general physical health services offered at the clinic.

The clinic is a game-changer, Oster said. In the past, kids have come with medical needs and staff members have only been able to direct them to resources in the community. Many Discovery students don’t have reliable transportation to access these services, Bowen said. Before the clinic opened, Mosby said she and other staff members would drive students to appointments. Now, they can access them just across campus.

Discovery is not the first in the area to have a health clinic on campus; Oakland High School in Tacoma started its health clinic in 2019.

Last year at orientation, the staff members conducted their first stress assessment of students to see what their stress levels were. Bowen said staff then paid attention to how students who had medium or high stress levels did in school and if they needed additional support. At the end of the year, they conducted the same assessment to see how stress levels may have changed over the year.

Building off this knowledge, Bowen said she hopes to start a group for students with higher stress levels to meet and discuss ways to regulate and manage stress.

Bowen said she worries about the perceptions people may have of young people who attend Discovery since it is an alternative school. But she wants people to know they are just kids, who for one reason or another have faced extraordinary difficulties. And she is amazed by their resilience to keep learning, come to school — and graduate.

“I honestly think every school should be run like an alternative school where the relationships are primary and the supports that are around the students are important and necessary for their success,” Bowen said.