- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - When Kalib Powell was withdrawn from North High School because of truancy issues, he was an 18-year-old with three credits.

Now, after two years of being at the Academy for Innovative Studies-First Avenue campus, Powell is three credits away from receiving his high school diploma.

“I’ve come a long way. … Everyone who says they can’t graduate or they don’t feel like they can do it, I feel like I’m a prime example of what you can do. … I feel like I messed up because I’m 21 (years old) and in school,” Powell said. “But at the same time, I feel like if I would have dropped out of school, I wouldn’t have the same life I have right now.”

Five years ago, the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. announced plans to revamp its alternative education model and relocate the four programs spread across the city to a central site. The previous programs were the Henry Reis Alternative High School, the School for Academic and Career Development, Christa McAuliffe Alternative Middle School, and The Learning Center.

Harwood Middle School students moved to Cedar Hall School, which expanded to grades K-8, and the building at 3013 First Avenue became the first AIS campus.

AIS is a nontraditional school where each student has an individualized learning or service plan. It’s a different option for students who face disciplinary action or who are unable to attend a traditional school.

Karen Scheessele, who was instrumental in developing the AIS model, told the Evansville Courier & Press (http://bit.ly/1KrkFBk ) that the goal was to combine resources and assets under one roof. However, AIS grew so much and the needs became so extraordinary, Scheessele said, that officials felt a second location was necessary.

In 2012, that second campus opened in the old North High School, located at 2319 Stringtown Road. It’s called AIS-Diamond, and Scheessele is the principal.

“So we could really intentionally focus on all the needs of the students,” she said.

After coming to AIS, Powell said he’s now on the “right track.” Despite working full-time, he plans to graduate in May. Then he intends to go straight to Ivy Tech Community College because he doesn’t “have time to waste.”

“This isn’t even a bad school,” Powell said. “I know people will say, ‘Oh you go to AIS, you must be bad.’ … But everyone is here for a different reason.”

Some kids are placed there for behavioral issues. Some choose to go there for a more focused approach, or because they don’t feel comfortable at their school.

“We hopefully produce an environment that welcomes them and helps them with that situation,” said Kristine Eichholz, AIS-First Avenue principal. “I wanted our school to be the school that accepts everyone as they are. We reserve all judgment. We inspire them to be their best. And we support them and celebrate every success.”

Class of 2014 graduate Brea Clem chose to go to AIS-First Avenue because she wanted a smaller environment than she had at Central High School. Clem, 20, also had a job while in school. She said there are more rules now than when it opened five years ago, but it made the environment better.

“I liked how small it was and I like the atmosphere,” Clem said. “And the teachers are so helpful. They’re available and they make sure you understand everything. … I’m really happy I decided to come here. I feel like if I wouldn’t have, I probably wouldn’t have graduated.”

Smaller class sizes at both campuses provide more one-on-one time for students. And both campuses also have social workers and counselors on staff, a principal and a dean.

While there are two campuses, each has unique features to serve different student needs.

AIS-First Avenue is open from 8 a.m. to 2:55 p.m. and serves grades 9-12. Students can earn a Core 40 or basic high school diploma. And eight credit hours are available each semester, compared to seven in traditional schools.

Eichholz has also been a part of the AIS family, in a variety of positions, since day one. In just five years, she has witnessed “dramatic” changes at AIS. With only two of the original teachers from 2010, she said now there’s rarely any teacher turnover, she said.

The school has grown from less than 200 students in grades 6-12 in the first year to more than 355 this year. But enrollment at both campuses changes almost daily.

Eichholz said only five classrooms in her facility are empty, but they soon plan to occupy two of those. Electives are being expanded, and college credit courses will soon be added to AIS-First Avenue.

“One thing our students miss is the sports and not having all the different elective choices,” she said. “Especially since now they’re staying. Students used to come for six months and then leave. Now more and more they stay. . The majority of them want to be here.”

The teachers and staff have telethon days to call and talk to families, as well as to make home visits to encourage students to come back to class.

“The morale has really changed in our building since the first year,” Eichholz said. “It’s something we have to do ongoing because perception is everything. . But there are so many people that have been here that say it’s nothing what they thought it was. People say they wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”

Over at AIS-Diamond, class is in session from 7:55 a.m. to 1:55 p.m. for high school and middle school students. Enrollment is about 290 students for both middle and high school.

Students can earn a basic high school or Core 40 diploma, and there are GED classes. Scheessele said it’s not a “one size fits all” school. Educators there capitalize on each student’s strengths. The GED courses are new, but 12 students have already passed the TASC, or Test Assessing Secondary Completion.

“We know a high school diploma is not for all students at AIS-Diamond. . I’m just really proud of that because we will do anything here to keep them in school,” Scheessele said.

Being in such a large building, Scheessele said it’s possible to separate the middle school students from high school students. Those working toward a high school diploma have classes in one hallway, GED students have their own area, and freshmen students are in a different space.

Scheessele said the goal is to get freshmen on the right track and back into their home school.

Other programs housed in the building include the new CARES programs, a court-monitored suspension and expulsion program; Hangers, the Evansville Area Council PTA Clothing Bank; and some business offices not associated with AIS.

Teachers at AIS-Diamond make weekly contact with parents or guardians to celebrate successes of the students. So far, 1,011 conversations have occurred with high school families, and 558 with middle school parents.

Scheessele said the EVSC is only one part of AIS-Diamond, because the school could not do the work without community partners.

Judge Brett Niemeier, Vanderburgh County juvenile court judge, put an office at the school when it opened so he or a member of his staff could regularly meet with students and families for counseling or personal needs.

Scheessele hopes in the future that AIS-Diamond will have a decrease in enrollment and “go out of business,” but she acknowledges she is a realist. But believing in the kids and having high expectations helps their potential come out, she said.

“The kids that we serve here at AIS-Diamond are kids who need more structure,” she said. “They need a more restrictive school setting. They need to relearn both academic skills and behavior skills in an environment where there are more resources to support the teaching.”

Melissa Moore said AIS is the EVSC’s “best-kept secret.” One of her sons only had 10 credits as a sophomore, but in five years Moore said AIS-First Avenue pushed him to graduation, where he was a featured speaker. She said he progressed “tremendously.”

She still enjoys volunteering at the school.

“I always tell people that AIS was our saving grace,” Moore said. “It gave us another alternative. People have to realize (AIS) may be labeled as a ‘bad school,’ but they help everyone.”

Meghan Gries, special education teacher at AIS-First Avenue, has taught there since it started. Gries said in an email that she will “bound out of bed most mornings.” She couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

“I love my job and I love all that God has planned for me each day to help these kids. … I am for certain we are all gaining more than any of our students. … What if someone had let you check out in your life? Where would you be?”

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Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com

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