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U-46 reviews impact of new DREAM Academy

By Seth Hancock
  The Board of Education in School District U-46 will vote on a $685,700 expenditure, planned to come out of the capital projects fund, for elevator maintenance at two district schools at its upcoming meeting on Monday, Dec. 12.
  The bid comes from K.R. Miller Contractors and as stated in the proposal is to provide work on “electrical and mechanical issues” with elevators at Tefft Middle School and the DREAM Academy to bring them up to code.
  The DREAM Academy is housed at the district’s central office and is the new alternative education school in U-46. The staff from the academy addressed the board at an October meeting to describe the changes made from what was previously called Gifford Street High School.
  Terri Lozier, assistant superintendent of secondary schools and equity, said Gifford Street “primarily was a credit recovery school,” but the DREAM Academy is much more.
  “We now allow and have credit recovery at all of our five comprehensive schools, so we no longer needed to just have a place where students went for credit recovery,” Lozier said. “There was also a prior history of a high number of fights as well as out-of-school suspensions. People were sentenced to Gifford Street High School and not really given a choice to attend.”
  Lozier, who was put in charge of redesigning the alternative school setting, said Gifford Street had a bad reputation with low attendance and it wasn’t meeting the goals it was meant to achieve. She said when looking for staff for the DREAM Academy, she was “looking for people who had restorative practices as a framework.”
  With the new academy, U-46 can now receive General State Aid funding based on attendance which the district did not receive with Gifford Street.
  In contrast to students being sentenced to the alternative school, the academy’s principal Lourdes Baker said students now choose the school.
  Later when asked by board member Sue Kerr how students are offered the choice, Baker said students are given a referral from their home school and go through an interview process and then given the choice. Baker said the goal is to set a foundation to eventually allow the student to return to their home school, and by state law students are allowed to attend the academy for only two years unless granted more time by the state if the parents petition for it.
  Teacher Sarah Borden said the three pillars of the academy are resilience, respect and responsibility. Regarding resilience, she said that “is based on failure” which the students who choose the academy have faced but have shown their desire to succeed by making the choice to attend.
  “Our students have chosen to be there, and they know failure,” Borden said. “They know what it’s like to not feel good about what they’re doing in school. They choose to come to the DREAM Academy, and they choose to have a second chance.”
  DREAM Academy opened this school year, and Borden said it’s been a success so far because the staff are “all in it for the success of all of our students.”
  “We selected what we believe is the finest group that can serve our student population at the DREAM Academy,” Baker said of the staff who teach students who have faced trauma and classroom difficulties.
  There is a later start time for the academy as teachers start the day at 7:40 a.m. and students at 9 a.m. which Baker said “gives the opportunity for our teachers to work together.”
  Nicole Sanchez, a student at the academy, said the late start time was “the biggest selling point to coming here” but it “isn’t just an excuse to sleep in” but rather allows her to be “more alert and less distracted.”
  Montserrat Perez, also a student, said smaller class sizes “helped me feel comfortable,” and her teachers don’t accept excuses which help them learn discipline.
  Teacher Joshua Zbinden said staff and students collaborate daily by using circles where they sit down together to ask open-ended and relevant questions on the days materials.
  “Circles are a great shape,” Zbinden said. “We use them often in school. We have two different kinds. The one that we use a lot is community building.”
  Zbinden added: “These circles are amazing. These circles change the way I like to work, the way I want to connect with my students.”
  Aaron Butler, assistant principal at the academy, said attendance last year at that time at Gifford Street was at 70 percent which has risen to 93.7 percent this year, and he said he’s seen more family involvement.
  Baker said working at the DREAM Academy appealed to her because she shared a similar story to those students who choose it as her parents were Mexican migrant workers and she had to start in kindergarten as a 9-year-old to learn English. She was the first high school and college graduate in her family.
  Board member Traci Ellis asked about a parental involvement requirement which Baker said parents are required to attend at least one of four academic sessions that occur during the school year. Baker said that students who may not have that parental involvement, such as homeless students, still have the opportunity to attend as long as they have good attendance and bring “no drama” with them.
  DREAM Academy students come from all five of the district’s traditional high schools, and Kerr noted the dedication of staff who attended all five graduations last year. Both board members Cody Holt and Jeanette Ward commended the presentation.
  “I really think that the reformation of the former Gifford Street High School into the DREAM Academy was really needed for our school district,” Holt said. “I’m looking forward to great things that come from this academy.”



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