An alternative learning program at Pinkerton allows struggling students a chance to recapture their confidence and find success in and beyond the classroom.
DERRY – At Pinkerton Academy’s alternative learning center, the school day is just three hours long.
But teachers and students say they pack a lot of learning into that short time.
“You usually spend 6 hours at Pinkerton walking around and going to classes, but I get a lot more work done here because I don’t get distracted,” said 17-year-old Kelsey Donahue of Derry, who has been taking classes at the alternative learning center since it first opened in January.
“I wanted to find a different route to go to school outside of Pinkerton because I got in a lot of trouble there,” Donahue said. “It’s a lot easier for me to focus here.”
Donahue and her classmates meet for three hours each school day at on off-campus facility, with the day divided into three separate blocks running from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.
In total, 48 students are enrolled at the alternative learning center this semester, but Pinkerton Academy Associate Dean of Students William Patriquin said the program has the capacity to serve up to 60 students.
The off-site center is facilitated by Ombudsman Educational Services, a national company specializing in alternative education programs for middle school and high school students, with other New Hampshire sites in Wolfeboro and Claremont.
The program is open to Pinkerton students who have struggled in the traditional high school classroom, Patriquin said, and many are repeating freshman-level courses. All tuition is covered by a student’s sending town and is of no extra cost to families, he said.
“A lot of these students are repeat freshman or sophomores, so they’re 16 and 17 years old and in classes with young freshman and they haven’t seen success,” Patriquin said. “Once they get a taste of success, like most students, they just want more.
”Each student is matched with an individual curriculum that combines computer-based unit lessons with supplementary reading and writing assignments, said Ombudsman center director Deborah Sullivan. All coursework is completed in the classroom so students don’t have any take-home assignments.
“Students are plugged into whatever course curriculum set matches their needs for Pinkerton’s requirements,” Sullivan said. “And for lower-level readers who traditionally struggle with textbooks, our material is adjusted to deliver the same content and same skills at a lower reading level that is more accessible.”
Every two weeks, students are given a list of lessons and assignments to be completed in that period and it is up to them to move through the program at their own pace, she said, with the assistance of three on-site Ombudsman instructors.
And for students like 17-year-old Brian Whitney of Derry, that independent approach makes all the difference.
“It’s not easier, but it’s at a better pace,” Whitney said.
“It’s a go-at-your-own-pace kind of deal, and I can’t do that at Pinkerton. If I’m having a bad day, I can still get work done and if I’m having a good day, I can do even more.”
Before the alternative learning program came along, Whitney said he was on track to be expelled from school. He said administrators and his family thought the program could be effective in his situation.
“They said that it’s a good program for me and that it fits me well, and that I might be able to do better here,” he said. “It’s shown to be true.”
Nikki Newell, 17, of Chester works with teacher Matt Hammond during Tuesday’s morning class. Newell is taking a full course load of math, English, anthropology, psychology and economics courses this semester.
“I like it here better than school because I do a lot better in a quiet environment,” Newell said. “I wasn’t doing anything (for college) and now I’m really doing something. It’s one of the best things I think I’ve done because I’m bettering myself in a lot of different ways.”
With a full course load this semester, Newel is taking math courses, English courses, anthropology, psychology and economics courses — all credits that will transfer back to Pinkerton Academy.
During their time in the Ombudsman program, students are also required to either volunteer 15 hours each week or hold a part-time job.
Another important component, Sullivan said, is the small teacher-to-student ratio.
“There’s a real luxury that we have in this setting to give students positive attention for things that have traditionally gone wrong for them,” she said. “Our setting affords us room to do that in a different way or maybe at a different level than in a traditional classroom.”
Once students earn enough credit to reach junior status at Pinkerton, Patriquin said they will either transition back into the school or enroll in another alternative programs, like adult education or GED courses.
In the alternative learning center’s first semester, Patriquin said 92 percent of students earned credit that will eventually transfer back to Pinkerton. So far, he said, six students have already moved back into traditional classes on campus.