Jeff Jenkins is like a lot of educators. He didn’t get into teaching for the money.
But unlike some educators, Jenkins wants to teach the most troubled youth, the students on the brink of dropping out of school and heading down the wrong path.
“Everybody should have a second chance,” he said. “I think it’s important to give them grace, but at the same time be very clear as to what our expectations are.”
Jenkins, an assistant principal at Lanier College & Career Academy, is now pulling double-duty after being tapped this year to head Hall County Schools’ Alternative Learning Center.
The learning center, housed on the LCCA campus, has existed for several years and Jenkins has been involved.
But this semester marks the first time the learning center is being defined as an independent school, with a wing of classrooms all its own, a dedicated staff and a refocused mission.
“This school year it is a completely separate school,” Jenkins said.
The 40 students currently enrolled at the learning center have typically had a severe disciplinary issue that required long-term suspension from their “home school,” Jenkins said.
“There is quite a bit of fluctuation (in enrollment) based on what type of year it is,” he added. “A lot of them are just really, really good kids that made one really bad decision and it cost them …”
The students are often required to finish the semester, plus another, before being allowed to return to the school from which they came.
That’s the goal – after all – to keep these students on track to graduate on time.
But getting the sixth- through 12th-graders who attend the learning center caught up on their credits and back in good standing with the school system takes a unique educational structure to achieve.
The students wear a uniform, must check in and out whenever they arrive and leave, and are closely supervised by staff.
The structure also includes developing good habits among the students, such as respect and courtesy for their peers and teachers.
The students may already benefit from simply being removed from their social circle at another school, plus the class sizes are smaller and the mentoring more personable, Jenkins said.
It’s about “placing them in situations so they really only have the choice of making a good decision,” he added.
But the structure is not meant to be heavy-handed.
“It could have something to do with family structure, but more often than not it’s just a really good kid that made a really bad decision on any given day,” Jenkins said. “If we’re honest, we probably all can look back and see some things we could have gotten in serious trouble for in school.”
Jenkins said mere discipline is not the answer, but the way in which content is delivered, both in a classroom and online, is critical to these students’ success.
“Our teachers are very good at monitoring those kids and helping them set goals so that they stay on track to go back to their home school and not lose any ground,” Jenkins said. “Each and every one of these teachers feel like it is their calling to work with these students. They know coming in what this school is.”
The learning center produces its fair share of success stories, and Jenkins recalls one fondly.
Last year, he said, a student who had come to the learning center in ninth grade graduated from LCCA.
The student had a tough family life, “but was just a good-hearted kid who was willing to work,” Jenkins said.
When that student walked across the stage during graduation, Jenkins said, “There were a lot of tears of happiness shed by both our staff and (the student’s) family …”
“It’s very rewarding to me,” he added. “I did not know how rewarding it would be when I first started this.”