Excel Academy South builds in time to develop a community
by Sarah Burgess
“We’re the city’s best kept secret,” said Excel Academy South’s executive director, Milton Alexander. Indeed, tucked away on the Friends Hospital campus, this alternative school is easy to miss.
But for the 335 students who are part of its inaugural year, the school is giving them a second chance at high school graduation.
Excel’s students, most over 16, were identified by high school counselors as at risk for dropping out. At Excel, an accelerated high school, they can earn up to 10 credits a year, two more than would be possible at a traditional high school.
The school’s approach, based on balanced and restorative practices, is to cut down on distractions, actively involve students in school governance, and prioritize building positive relationships.
“We study a lot of what went wrong in schools and develop systems to eliminate those distractions,” said Alexander.
He has five years experience with Camelot, the company that runs Excel South and its sister school, Excel Academy North. Camelot also operates two discipline schools.
One source of stress Excel seeks to eliminate is hallway interactions. Students walk in lines and follow “protocol,” keeping their hands clasped behind their backs, and student “team leaders” with walkie-talkies oversee transitions between classes.
While the environment is tightly controlled, students rise in status as they complete a “pledge book” that demonstrates to faculty that they know and follow the school norms. They first become “Eagles” and then “Executives.” Eagles and Executives act as role models and actively “confront” their peers’ negative behavior. They also participate in student government, where they are invited to make proposals about school policy.
Alexander expects his teachers to build rapport with the students. “If you have a relationship with a student, that helps you de-escalate conflict,” he said.
The schedule builds in time for developing community. Students are divided into “town houses,” which have “town meetings” at the beginning and end of each day. These include announcements and give students the chance to celebrate successes and give each other feedback.
There is also a daily advisory period called Guided Group Interaction, run on the principles of group therapy.
The staff walks students to the bus stop each afternoon and contacts them by cell phone if they are absent.
Senior Sarae White, 18, floundered at Lincoln. Her father brought her to her first day of school at Excel, exasperated and desperate.
“I came here and I went from straight Fs to straight As,” she said. “It’s great how proud my Dad is of me now. It’s good to have him on my side.”
Students attribute their turnarounds to the staff. “If they see one little pout on my face, it’s like, ‘Oh, are you ok?’” White said. “It’s a very caring environment.”
Brandon Ausborne, 18, a senior, said that at his old high school, “Some of the staff cared. But at this school, everyone cares.” He notes with satisfaction that students can’t do anything without faculty noticing.
Ausborne said that, at first, he had doubts: “At first I thought it was going to be strict – protocols and lines. I thought, ‘What are you talking about – we’re high school kids.’”
But then he said, “Mr. A. [Anderson] explained why you are in lines, why we have protocol.” Ausborne has become a school leader and is generally flourishing.
Academic coordinator Stephanie Bucca said the school seeks to prepare students to be “problem-solvers and lifelong learners.” Following the instructional model used by Jobs for the Future, faculty focus on six instructional strategies: collaborative group work, classroom talk, writing to learn, scaffolding, questioning, and literary groups.
The faculty is 95 percent new teachers, including Teach for America corps members.