Ray Willey ducked into a Wawa and called his grandfather to pick him up.
“He was just wondering why I was running and doing all this nonsense and why I couldn’t stay at school,” Willey said. “I told him I had issues with the teachers. He yelled at me a little bit and asked why I couldn’t do better.”
And when he got to his home in Conshohocken, the welcome was less than enthusiastic.
“I was yelling,” his mother, Judy Willey, recalled. “I was p--- off. … From 4th through 11th grade, he was in trouble. I was always being called to school. The cops were always at my house.”
It was the start of three frustrating years. He had an unsuccessful stay at an alternative school, finally dropping out when he turned 16. He was “happy and excited” at first because “I felt that school was worthless and pointless.”
With too much time on his hands, “I was being a knucklehead … stealing, fighting … selling [drugs].” He had a short stay in a juvenile detention facility, but also made unsuccessful attempts to find work and realized that, without a diploma, there might not be any. And friends of his were going to jail.
An argument with his girlfriend was the turning point:
“She felt like I didn’t have the guts to go back to school.”
A warmup for the brain
The choreography that starts the day at Lakeside School in Horsham Township, Montgomery County, is quite different from that of a conventional school.
Buses from throughout the area — some from Lakeside, some from districts that provide the transportation — are lined up. One by one, they discharge their passengers through a welcoming gantlet of principal Pete Dillard, educational supervisor Jen Fauske, and facility dog Boomerang and his handler, Ken Van Horn. (To see how the dogs play a role at the school, click here.)
Fauske checks off the students on her list, and the humans greet each by name. “Hey, Austin. Hi, Logan. …”
Once inside, the students scatter for a variety of non-academic activities — games, puzzles, pool, basketball. The theory about these activities' benefits is similar to that of stretching before doing vigorous exercise.
Dillard calls them “brain-regulating activities.”
“The idea is to get the brain in a good state of mind,” he says. “To operate at their best, they have to be in a calm state. It’s like a warmup for the brain. And you don’t know what might have happened to them at home [that morning].”
Michael Paone of Norristown furiously attacks a punching bag, as physical education teacher David Sheaffer looks on. The punching allows Michael to expel some of his frustration rather than act out in the classroom.
Sasha Shallies, 17, a senior from Ambler, has the opportunity to relate to a supportive adult as she does a jigsaw puzzle with counselor Gwyn Robinson. She also gets a pep talk to help her start the day.
Dylan Pontaski, 16, an 11th grader from Norristown, bends himself into a pretzel position to make a difficult pool shot. He says he enjoys the pre-class period because “it gives me time to wake up.”