DeLaSalle Education Center has long been the last resort of Kansas City teens who haven’t succeeded anywhere else.
“Back in 1993 when I went, this school for bad kids,” Christina Boyd remembers. “If you had behavioral issues, if you fell behind too far in school, if you were a teen mother, you went to De La Salle when no one else wanted you in the school district.”
Boyd says her problems started when she started hanging out with older kids, who liked to cut class. Pretty soon she was failing, and she landed at DeLaSalle. She didn’t really want to be there, but it ended up being a good experience. She and her friends started a student council and participated in a “Beauty and the Beast”-themed fundraiser. Boyd says her diploma opened doors that would’ve been locked had she dropped out.
“When I started working, it was, ‘Oh, you went to DeLaSalle, what is that?’ Because I went to an education center. That’s what’s on my diploma, DeLaSalle Education Center. But they would call and verify, and it’d be OK. You know, you’re hired,” Boyd says.
So when her son and her nephew, both 17, told her they were struggling with cliques at school, Boyd decided to move them to DeLaSalle.
“They had talked to me and said they didn’t want to go back to school. That’s not an option,” Boyd says. “That’s not – no.”
Finishing high school is too important.
“Their graduation date actually isn't until May, like the regular school would graduate, but they're pushing themselves to graduate in October. They're up and ready and they're out the door. So they're here to get that done,” Boyd says.
Imagining DeLaSalle 2.0
DeLaSalle has helped countless students get back on track since it opened in 1971. In the 1980s and ’90s, it served as a national model for alternative education. But in recent years, DeLaSalle has fallen short of state standards for student achievement. The charter school was in serious fiscal trouble, too, after enrolling students who didn’t ultimately attend. That money had to be paid back to the state.
The new principal, Elizabeth Sanders, a veteran administrator who worked in Blue Valley, Olathe and the Kansas City Public Schools before coming to DeLaSalle, has spent the last month meeting with parents to better understand where her students are coming from.
Some students, like Boyd’s son and nephew, are at DeLaSalle, so they can graduate early. But more typically, DeLaSalle students are short on credits and short on time. They need to finish before they turn 21 and are too old for high school in Missouri.
One way DeLaSalle is trying to get more students to the finish line is through a new, online program known as Missouri Option that lets students work at their own pace to complete coursework. It’s specifically designed for students who are at risk of not graduating.
“But there's also this need to make sure that there are models of high school that students don't have to first fail in in order to have access to,” says Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, which took over as DeLaSalle’s sponsor this summer.
Wahby says a while back, commissioners toured Boston Day and Evening Academy, a charter school in Massachusetts where teachers greeted students with questions about where they had slept and whether they’d eaten.
“All of our commissioners immediately fell in love with this school because they reached children where they were,” Wahby says. “When the commissioners came back to Missouri, they really committed to finding a way to serve the dropout population. So when DeLaSalle began looking for a new sponsor, our commission was just giddy about it.”
Now, with a grant from SchoolSmartKC, the commission and the school board are trying to reimagine the alternative school. Principal Sanders would like to see them ditch that term – she prefers “nontraditional education.” She doesn’t consider her students “at risk,” either.
“That's a term that's used a lot thrown around,” Sanders says. “But I tell them, these kids are at promise. They're at risk of being food insecure. Some of our students are at risk of being a victim of violence or seeing violence. They're at risk of being homeless, but these kids have brains and have goals for themselves. All they need is somebody to invest in them and they'll reinvest in our community.”
Sanders is leading DeLaSalle through a period of transition. The school didn’t enroll any freshman this year, but it’s still taking sophomores, juniors and seniors. Eventually, the school wants to attract more students and not just ones who are out of options.
“I said, if the kids that were here last year were not going to get a top-notch education, I can't be a part of that,” Sanders says. “While someone is visioning for the future, I have the kids that are here.”
And she’s turning to eight of those kids to advise her as DeLaSalle considers making big changes. Members of Sander’s hand-picked advisory council talk about everything from the soda policy – no bottles allowed, as some students are struggling with substance abuse issues – to reopening the school store.
“We should have a DeLaSalle shop,” Diangelo Martinez suggests. “I used to go to Alta Vista, and they had clothes so you could support the team. Like they had Nike sweaters with the logo.”
Several of the other students chimed in – yes, they’d buy gear with the DeLaSalle logo to wear to sporting events like basketball and volleyball games.
The conference room by Sanders’ office is a place where students can be vulnerable. Junior De’shonara Smith tells the group she’s nervous about what happens after graduation.
“My goal is to try college,” she says. “To try it. Because I really didn’t want to do college at first, so I’m just going to try it.”
Sanders points out that De’shonara is killing it in her advanced math class. But even the college-bound students have to struggle against DeLaSalle’s reputation.
“You’ll be on the bus, and they’ll talk about DeLaSalle and just make it seem like a bad school. I think we should have opportunities to get back to the community,” De’shonara says.
De’shonara’s comment has Kyle Vaughan, a basketball player who isn’t shy about his talent – “I’m kinda like the star” – up out of his seat. He goes to the window and points to a pile of scrap lumber.
“You see this right here? All that wood? We could do something. People who live over here, they got kids, probably gotta go somewhere for a park, we could turn this into for little kids,” Kyle says.
Sanders likes the idea. Community service could help others begin to see what she does in these kids and this school.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.