Meeting students where they're at in the wake of the pandemic
- Building Community
Providing an alternative to the typical high school experience while meeting the social, emotional and academic needs of students is at the core of the mission of Burnsville Alternative High School.
With more students facing new challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, that alternative approach has been even more essential and for more students than ever.
BAHS Principal Kelly Ronn has put students’ social and emotional well-being first from the start while overseeing the school’s response to the pandemic. In the spring of 2020 when the district shifted to distance learning, the first thing she did was have staff reach out to students to make sure they had access to housing and food.
“We spent a lot of time working on basic needs. We were a support,” Ronn told the School Board on March 24.
During distance learning, Ronn, as well as BAHS administrative assistant Staci Ho-Buttleman and interventionist Lori Maidment, regularly called and texted many of the school’s 270 students to check in.
“We didn’t lose communication with most students,” Ronn said. “Teachers worked hard to develop a list of student phone numbers so we could text them throughout the pandemic and encourage them to log in and tell them ‘great job.’”
When in-person learning resumed, they reached out to students who stopped logging in for online school and encouraged them to continue their education and work toward their high school diploma. Some BAHS students came back after 18 months and will graduate this year.
“Some of our students couldn’t do school online. It just wasn’t for them and they started working more, so they had some big gaps to fill when they came back,” Ronn said. “Our students can stay until the school year of their 21st birthday, so some of them will finish up a year later.”
The pandemic also led to some changes that provide more flexibility for students, including the ability for students to use technology to keep up with studies and assignments even if they aren't able to attend school in person for several days.
Burnsville Alternative High School is an optional program for students who need to make up credits or meet one of seven other qualifying factors set by the state, such as mental health issues, addiction or pregnancy. Students are referred to BAHS with the goal of earning the credits they need to transition back to their previous school or earn their diploma from BAHS. Enrollment has grown by about 70 students over the last two years, largely due to the pandemic, during which many students have faced new and unprecedented stress in their personal and academic lives.
BAHS students have the opportunity to make up credits because the school operates on a quarter block schedule rather than a semester schedule. In addition to taking four core classes per quarter, students can also take one credit recovery course online every quarter, which means they can earn as many as 20 credits over the course of the school year, versus 12-14 at Burnsville High School.
Students receive individualized support at BAHS, where the average class size is about 15 students. A 45-minute advisory period is built into each day, during which students can review their learning plans, graduation timelines and goals with an adult mentor. Students can also meet with their principal, counselor or interventionist without making an appointment.
“Our doors are always open and we’re always out in the halls greeting students,” Ronn said. “All the staff know all the students. We’re small enough to have that community feel.”
As a sophomore, Nataly Bello was struggling to keep up in school. Her attendance wasn’t great as distractions often led her to skip classes. She fell even further behind when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Burnsville High School to move to distance learning.
“I was doing my work, but I wasn’t really focused on it. Then we went online and that really threw me off, having to log in and always be on a computer. I like doing things on paper,” she said.
Nataly started taking online classes through BAHS as a junior. With the help of teachers who she said were quick to respond when she had questions and frequently reached out to her via text message, she started to catch up on her credits. Nataly came to BAHS in person for her senior year and is set to graduate in June. She credits the individualized instruction and support she received at BAHS with helping her get back on track.
“I wasn’t supposed to graduate until next year and they helped me a lot to get the credits I needed. They were focused on me graduating and making sure I understood what I needed to do,” she said. “I needed to get it together and get my priorities straight and I did. I’m really proud of myself because I didn’t think I would be able to do it. I have more faith in myself now.”
Nataly is looking forward to going out on her own. She wants to find a good job and eventually enroll in the veterinary program at Dakota County Technical College (DCTC).
A multi-sport athlete throughout his high school career, senior Dahcai Clayborne wears his Burnsville Blaze baseball hat and sweatshirt to school. When he started attending BAHS as a junior, he was hesitant to display that kind of pride in his new school, but two years later he’s happy to share how BAHS defied his expectations while helping him improve his academics.
“When I first came here I didn’t think I would like it, only because it was a new school. I wasn’t really sure about it. I was kind of scared, I guess, and embarrassed because I thought people just come here because they’re doing bad in school,” Dahcai said. “I came here and it’s heartwarming because all the teachers were really nice, were so welcoming, and helped me get on top of everything.”
When Richard Biggs was a freshman at Burnsville High School, a house fire forced him and his family to leave their home. The accident disrupted his education and left him short of the credit total he would need to graduate from BHS in four years.
“I fell behind a lot during that time,” he said.
For his senior year, Ricard came to BAHS where he said it’s a lot quieter, there’s a lot less to worry about, and everyone gets along really well. He said individual attention and guidance from his teachers helped him gain the credits he needed to graduate this spring.
“It has been a good fit. The teachers are very nice and give you a lot of notes to help you with your work,” he said. “They make it so much easier to understand the work we’re doing. Every time I ask a question they always help. I know I understand the work I’m doing thanks to them.”
Richard plans to take a gap year to save up money for college and then attend either Normandale Community College or DCTC. He said the staff at BAHS helped him explore various educational and career options for his future.
Ryan Simpson is quick to admit he has struggled to get motivated about school in the past and that he performs better academically when someone is pushing him.
He’s gotten that over the last six months at BAHS. Before that he was frequently skipping class while enrolled at another high school outside District 191. At BAHS, he said staff members like Lori Maidment are looking out for him and that’s helped him improve his attendance.
“The teachers here make me go to class. They literally search for me,” Ryan said with a smile. “They help you with your work a lot more.”
Teachers also help Ryan stay on track by sending him reminder emails and texts, and keeping class information updated on Schoology so he can keep track of his work from home.
Ryan is now on pace to graduate early in the first or second quarter of next school year.
A low-key learning environment
Distancing learning was overwhelming for junior SeeJ Johnson. Burnsville High School was a little too busy. So far, BAHS has been just the right fit.
SeeJ transferred to BAHS this year at the start of the third quarter. During distance learning, he did alright in classes that involved writing, but struggled in math and science. SeeJ is now retaking those classes and finding success in a more low-key environment.
“During distance learning you’d get 10-15 assignments due that day or by the end of the week. Now it’s just a lot less stressful. The work is not easier, but there’s more time to do it so I’m able to get it done,” SeeJ said. “The connections with the teachers are very good, so if you have stuff going on that takes away from your school work, they talk to you about it, see how they can help you get it done, and work with you.”
SeeJ wants to take some classes at BHS next year, so he will have a hybrid schedule and attend both schools.
“I like that there are fewer students here. Life at BHS, there’s so much happening at one time. I like that it’s calm here. Sometimes I miss the chaos and I like it (at BHS), but BAHS being my main base is better,” he said. “I like that I can just go to Ms. Ronn’s room and just talk about life. There’s more time for that here.”
Upon graduating next spring, SeeJ is interested in joining the ROTC, earning a psychology degree and becoming an actor.
“We have students who face unique challenges when they come to our school,” Ronn said. “We’re happy to provide them with a smaller school setting where we can build relationships, address their individual needs and provide personalized learning and support.”