Teacher Philip Johnston, center, works with Nathaniel Roaix, left, as Mike Akanji works with Keysane “Margiela” Abdi, right, during a history of education lesson at Next STEP High in Lewiston. Students are working on a proposal that is either for or against the Lewiston High School expansion project. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Carley Reed dropped out of Lewiston High School with six months left in her freshman year. Social and separation anxiety made it difficult to attend class.

“I fell so far behind,” she said.

Her mother, father and two brothers had all dropped out. The odds of reaching graduation didn’t look promising. Then a guidance counselor recommended Next STEP High.

The 15-year-old doubled up on credits last year, during the program’s pilot year. Now Reed’s hoping to graduate early in June.

Carley Reed, 15, listens to her teacher during a class that focuses on the science element to her “September Seminar” class at Next STEP High in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“My mom dropped out because she had my brother at a young age. Both of my brothers, it wasn’t a good fit for them so they dropped out,” she said. “I’ll be the first in my family. What keeps me going is graduating just to prove that I can do it.”

Next STEP High, with 20 students and housed this year in the former Longley Elementary School, was born out of a $150,000 grant from the Barr Foundation, awarded in 2017 as part of its “Engage New England: Doing high school differently” initiative.

“We saw a unique population emerging that didn’t quite fit in some of the other pathways,” said Tree Street Youth President Julia Sleeper-Whiting, who wrote the grant application.

In that population are students who were homeless, involved with juvenile corrections, experiencing “significant social/emotional traumas,” or with parents working multiple jobs and not home much.

Tree Street leaders asked teens what they’d like to see in a high school and heard three things.

Curriculum that felt relevant to their lives.

Understanding that they might be going through a lot.

“The third piece is there’s a lot of problems in the world,” she said. “How can we make it a more just and more equitable place?”

Seven students graduated from the pilot last June and walked with their LHS class, receiving an LHS diploma, which they’d also flagged as important.

“That was a big part of the research,” Sleeper-Whiting said. “The kids said they wanted to walk at the big graduation.”

Spencer Traylor, left, teaches a science-related class attended by Carley Reed, center, and Mohamed “James” Elmoge at Next STEP High in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

‘IT’S YOUR JOB’

The program has three full-time teachers, an education technician and a Tree Street staffer, as well as support from Tree Street. Days begin and end with a group circle. In the morning, there are classes of four to 10 students in subjects like math and social studies. Afternoons are time for self-expression, practicing in the modest music studio or maker workshop, or participating in a project outside the building.

On Wednesdays, they head to Tree Street after half a day and work on college or job applications or catch up on class work.

Next STEP can fit up to 25 students who are either self-referred or recommended by a guidance counselor or Tree Street. Most are sophomores to seniors who are one year off-track on credits toward graduation. The program is accelerated for them so they can catch up — it’s possible to earn eight credits or more in a school year versus the traditional six — but you have to be motivated.

“They’ll give you the work to do — you’re an adult here, so it’s your job to do it,” said Devon Therrien, 16. “They’re not going to chase you around for a paper.”

He enrolled last year after Sleeper-Whiting asked if he’d like to help interview incoming staff. The program was a good fit.

“I was in trouble before I went to the high school; high school didn’t help,” he said.

Philip Johnston, one of the three teachers and new to the district last year, said he was drawn to the program because he liked that “students were doing things that empowered them beyond school.”

Last year, nine boys approached him about creating a Next STEP basketball team. He turned it into a class: Students designed their own jerseys, voted him their coach and researched leagues to join, landing at Portland Rec.

“I was also teaching them things about coaching basics, everything from designing plays to how do you make sure your players are well-hydrated and stretched,” Johnston said. “Most of them actually got half an elective credit as well.”

The team went undefeated in the regular season, losing in the semi-finals.

The STEP in Next STEP stands for Success Team Engagement Progress — students picked the name in a leadership class. They might also make and design the new exterior sign in a future class.

Johnston said it’s been challenging to start a new program from scratch, designing new, flexible curriculum, building community partnerships — several of his students worked with Androscoggin Bank last year, working on business start-up pitches — and having to wear all of the hats of logistics and discipline.

It’s also been rewarding: 75% of students last year had higher attendance during the pilot than they’d had during the previous school year. Attendance for some jumped as much as from 10% to 80%. Some students hadn’t been to school in a few years.

Hassan Hassan, 17, in his second year at Next STEP, chose the school because all of his friends were going there. The fact that he can write and record rap music there, for credit, “it’s dope,” he said. “It’s something I like to do.”

Johnston’s trying to encourage him to follow another passion, writing a business plan this next year for a barber shop.

‘JUST ANOTHER HOME’

Lewiston High School Principal Jake Langlais said he’s hoping to grow the Next STEP model.

“Students are engaged and producing academic products and applying the acquired skills and concepts in ways they never have,” he said. “This is not something you can buy or implement from a book — this is responsive work that requires us to truly know our students, families and communities we serve.”

Langlais said a few differences make a student a better candidate for Next STEP versus Lewiston’s other alternative high school program, which has 25 students and is weighing a name change to Great Falls Academy. It shares the former Longley school space.

“The students that are going to Next STEP applied, interviewed and most have said they just need school to be done differently for them,” he said. “The first thing we do is get to know the student. We get a sense of what it is they want, the ways in which they learn, and then we look at the opportunities we have. The key is relationships. Which program would the student be most likely to build good relationships — we go from there.”

Reed, who is doubling up on credits to graduate early, said she was able to talk to Next STEP teachers about her anxiety. If she feels like she needs to leave the room to take a walk, she can.

After high school, Reed would like to take a year off before going off to college to study cosmetology. She’s interested in special effects and movie makeup.

Therrien would like more people to discover the program.

“If you walk up to the high school and say Next STEP High, nobody’s going to know what you’re talking about,” he said. “For me, Next STEP High is just another home. We don’t really have a reputation yet; I’m pretty sure we’ll build a reputation.”

Keysane “Margiela” Abdi, left, and Mohamed “James” Elmoge take time to take a picture in between classes at Next STEP High in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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