LEWISTON — Seventh-grader Devin Jeselskis, 12, is doing better in school this year than last. His D's and F's have become B's and C's. He says he likes school and isn't skipping.
“Last year I went to three different schools,” Jeselskis said. “I kept getting kicked out. I was skipping school, wasn't listening.”
He and four other students are part of a new alternative program at Lewiston Middle School. The program is housed in the Lewiston Memorial Armory next to the school.
The School Department launched an alternative program at the middle school four months ago. The goal is to help students who aren't successful in the traditional setting and to boost the number of students who graduate from high school.
Some students don't do well in the traditional school setting. Some are anxious and need a smaller environment, said LMS alternative teacher Dan Sansoucy.
Alternative students begin their day at the middle school where they have breakfast and home room. They then go to the armory for a team meeting and begin their schoolwork.
In addition to performance, students are graded on participation, positive attitudes and willingness to learn.
The alternative school requires students to do community service and to help the city's Recreation Department, which provides space. Students have painted, raked leaves, weeded, swept floors and help assemble gymnastics equipment.
The program teaches through a hands-on learning style by incorporating lessons from the community. “We focus on literacy,” Sansoucy said. “We push reading. We push math.”
Last semester, businessman Randy Robichaud of the Sports Trader store spent several hours each week showing students all about bicycles. Sansoucy designed math, science, writing and reading lessons around bicycle systems.
Robichaud said he didn't know what to expect when first invited to speak to students. “I'm not a teacher,” he said. But students “were very attentive and had an interest in what was going on.”
At the end of his 10 weeks, he brought in boxes of bicycle parts. Students tore the boxes open and built the bikes from top to bottom. “They were capable mechanics by the time they were done,” he said.
If those students were taught through books and reading, “they would have lost interest,” Robichaud said. “Having hands-on kept them involved.”
Student Nick Ayres, 14, agreed, saying he dislikes reading. He doesn't like sitting at a desk all day.
This semester, hands-on lessons will focus on wellness and physical fitness. Personal trainer Thomas Nadeau, who runs TNT Fitness, will donate a few hours a week, Sansoucy said. Core lessons will be designed around wellness.
The new program cost about $75,000 a year, Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said. It's starting small and will grow. The current ratio of five students to one teacher and one education technician will change, he said. “We're starting with these students. More will be added.” Schools need multiple pathways to help more students achieve success, Webster said.
Faith MacFarlane, 13, said she didn't like school last year. “My attendance was bad," she said. "I missed 48 to 50 days. I pretended to be sick.” Now she doesn't miss any school time, she said, unless she's really sick.
Eighth-grader William West, 14, described the alternative school as “awesome.” His academic career is looking brighter.
“Last year, I kept getting into trouble," he said. "I was a punk. I didn't like school. I got all F's. This year I'm getting A's, B's and C's.”