Before the start of his junior year, Gage Palmateer wasn’t optimistic about graduating from high school on time. His grades were low, he was falling behind on classwork and was having trouble balancing his work outside of the classroom with his education.
Today, two trimesters into his junior year, he’s on track to graduate, crediting his progress to the Compass program at Caledonia High School.
“My grades were terrible before I started this class,” he said. “Now I’m starting to get back on track to actually graduate. I didn’t think it was going to happen; things are looking a lot better.”
In its first year in the district, the Compass program challenges traditional alternative education by targeting students in need of support in a classroom setting before they find themselves falling too far behind.
After more than a year of planning, Program Director Colin Nelson and high school principal Brady Lake couldn’t be happier with the success they have seen in such a short period of time, Nelson said.
“The idea of this program is to give students a chance to get the specific support that they need to make high school an enjoyable and positive experience,” he said. “A lot of these students were doing coursework that was 100 percent online, and we felt that we had better programming out there to give them more success.
“Parents have told us that their children are more engaged in school, (that they) like coming to school and have better attendance and grades.”
A Change of Pace
In response to the need to change curriculum, Caledonia decided to shut down its separate alternative education building and move students back to the high school where they would have a class once a day.
“We format the class to work on ways to be a stronger student, a greater self-advocate and a place for students to catch up when they find themselves overwhelmed,” Nelson said. “We combine important conversations with classwork.”
In previous years, alternative education programming allowed for 20 students to participate. Under the new model, more than 70 students are receiving wraparound support, Lake said.
“This program allows us to serve more kids and to serve them better,” he said. “We were serving a very small population before, and now we have a chance to improve our methods.”
In addition to the daily class instruction, a social worker devoted exclusively to Compass students touches base throughout the semester.
“She meets with them in class and, if there’s a student that needs more support, she spends more time working with that student,” Nelson said.
In the Classroom
Each week starts with a lesson meant to start a discussion about expectations and choices teenagers face, such as decision making and perception, that can be applied to social and educational behavior.
Senior Morgan Borton has sensed a change already.
“The course material has honestly impacted everyone in class and made them better people overall,” he said. “I’ve seen improvements in attitude and the way that people even go about their work.”
The class also has made Morgan more outgoing and confident, he said, in addition to paying more attention at school and in his personal time.
“Before I was in this class it was very easy for me to ignore things and just brush them off. I want to be involved in things now and I want to work hard and achieve my goals.”
Junior Trey Navarro had this advice for future students: “Don’t stress yourself out too much. You’re not any less than anyone else, (and) this class is here to help you. Use your time wisely and let the teachers help you because they really care, and they really help.”
A Role Model in the Classroom
Students agreed that the class wouldn’t be what it is without inspiration from Nelson.
“Mr. Nelson is the only reason that I am going to graduate,” Trey said. “I really didn’t care before I met him. He really pushed me to be better.”
Having an instructor so dedicated to his success has changed how Morgan said he sees school and his future. One of his new goals is to go to community college right after graduation.
“I was planning on taking a gap after high school, and I didn’t really have a plan for what that meant,” he said. “Mr. Nelson encouraged me to attend community college after high school, and now I’m really excited about that.”
“He’s one of the most positive and funny guys I have ever met. I’m lucky to have him as my teacher for this class because having us fail isn’t an option to him.”
Nelson, who is now in his 13th year with the district, started as a resource room teacher primarily for students who had a learning disability in mathematics. He also has taught general education math classes. In his current position with Compass, said, he feels like he’s really hit his stride.
“There’s something about seeing a student who has been struggling start to work toward being successful that really is the reason that we do this job,” Nelson said. “We, as a district, believe in these kids and they know it, which helps them to push through.”