TURNER – Sixteen years ago, the River Valley Alternative School was lauded as an award-winning program that helped high school dropouts turn their lives around.

The majority of students graduated and went on to college at a higher rate than the state average.

The school produced the 1990 Maine Teacher of the Year, who went on to become the first Maine teacher to win the prestigious Milken award, a national award for teaching excellence. The program even lured NBC’s Tom Brokaw to Turner to report on the school’s success.

But this year, more than half of River Valley’s six seniors are in danger of not graduating. Of the school’s 31 students, only 12 are passing the required five courses.

“The bottom line: It’s not working,” SAD 52 Superintendent Tom Hanson said.

The school board voted in April to close the 20-year-old school in June. Officials plan to open a new alternative school in fall 2007. That school will have a new name and a new location and will involve more school districts. River Valley school will be converted to office space.

Different climate

Many of the school’s problems stem from a shift in how students are recruited, Hanson said.

The school has gone from helping dropouts to supporting students who can’t function in high school.

Teacher Rick French said he used to get a list of students who had dropped out. He’d knock on their doors, explain how the alternative school was different, how they could enhance their lives by returning to school.

He no longer gets a dropout list, he said. “Now we get the behavioral problems.”

And the school no longer expels students who don’t pass the required courses.

“We stopped enforcing that,” Hanson said. “I don’t know why or when. If we went by the standards of the original program, 19 of those (current) students would be dismissed at the end of the year.”

In its early years, the school stressed hands-on learning, community interaction and business partnerships.

“There was no easy curriculum,” said Mark Bechtel, who taught at the school in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

“We said, `Everybody takes algebra.’ Lots of schools do that today, but it was more uncommon then,” he said in a phone interview from Ely, Nev., where he is director of education for the White Pine County School.

Class schedules were more flexible than those at traditional public high schools. Students came and went depending on their work schedules, but there was no hanging around, Bechtel said. If students showed up for school but didn’t do their course work, they were asked to leave.

“You don’t want a climate where you don’t see people working academically,” Bechtel said.

The original students were hungry to learn, he said. They weren’t placed there by other schools because they misbehaved.

“We were selective about who we took in,” Bechtel said. “We took dropouts who wanted a fighting chance to get an education. You had to want to be there.”

Students who are struggling in school are different from those who drop out and get a taste of trying to make it without an education, Bechtel said. “They say, `Man, I’m not doing this for the rest of my life.’ They’re much more mature.”

The program also worked with local businesses to create opportunities for students, and businesses helped students discover new opportunities and potential.

With higher academic standards mandated by state and federal governments, River Valley gradually drifted toward classroom work instead of hands-on learning, which is what these students need, Hanson said.

‘Like family’

At least half of this year’s six seniors likely won’t get diplomas because they haven’t done their school work, said interim director Pat Jacobs.

The school isn’t demanding enough, said junior Amber Barnaby.

“Some students come to school so they don’t get in trouble, but they’re not really doing anything,” she said. “If they were to kick those kids out of this school, it would be a lot better.”

On a recent Friday, an English class with three seniors was being taught how to write cover letters for job applications. The atmosphere was casual.

Work was often interrupted by talking. Students called their teacher by her first name. “It’s like family here,” one student later said.

As students worked, one boy asked another what medication he was taking. Ritalin and Zoloft, the boy answered. The first student encouraged the other not to take the medication. “You’ve got to learn to live with (depression and hyperactivity),” he said.

Students are allowed to come and go, though they don’t wander the halls as much since Jacobs took over in January, she said. “It’s real fluid.”

She likes her students. They’re bright. But one minute they act like mature adults, the next like third-graders. Many haven’t had easy lives, she said.

Some students go on to college, but others aren’t being prepared for anything, French said.

“You have to remember, they don’t have much,” he said “This is a safe place. Without this place, their home life becomes worse. Their options become less.”

Tears and anxiety

And they know it.

“There are kids crying and stuff,” said senior John Libby. “What about the students? What are they going to do next year? You just can’t take these students who are used to this atmosphere and stick them back in high school. They’re going to cause problems.”

Libby said he won’t be affected because he’s graduating. He plans to go to college. He worries about teachers losing their jobs, about students not having the help they need. He said he was placed at River Valley after getting in trouble. He hung around with the wrong people.

Other students, including Barnaby, Nicole Woodward, Dean Jessome and Eric Melanson, said River Valley should be reformed, not closed. Without the school, some will drop out next year, they predicted.

But they acknowledged there’s a problem.

Students have the choice of working hard, “or you can sit there and act like you’re stupid,” Libby said.

“The school helps a lot of kids, but at the same time a lot come here who are just using it,” Barnaby said. She’s at River Valley because illnesses forced her to miss a lot of school. River Valley allows her to work at her own pace. She’ll graduate from high school next year. She plans to go to college and become a psychiatrist.

Fresh start

French, who teaches history, is worried about the students.

“These kids aren’t going to make it back at high school,” he said. If it were up to him, he’d phase out the program, allowing existing students to finish.

The superintendent said he’s also concerned that some may quit next year, but changes must be made, he said. Reform can’t happen while keeping the school open. “We need a fresh, clean start.”

Next year, River Valley students will have two options: regular high school or adult education. Of the current students, all but six will be old enough to attend adult education, Hanson said.

Hanson is working with Leavitt Area and Livermore Falls high schools to ensure that those six have individualized education plans and whatever help they need to succeed.

Meanwhile, he’ll work with other school districts to create a regional alternative program. Existing classes of three or five students can’t be sustained, Hanson said.

The new school will adopt different ways of teaching. Hanson was not yet sure how it would be done, but the goal is to make learning more hands-on and to involve more businesses, just as the original school did. It won’t be a place to hang out.

Students won’t get referred to the alternative school because they’re misbehaving in classes, Hanson said. “You’re going to have to apply because you think that school would be a better way for you to learn.”

Hanson said he believes in alternative education. Some kids learn differently, and it’s up to administrators to come back with a program that will better resemble the original River Valley: “to be exemplary,” Hanson said.