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November 20, 2002

Two school programs making strides in Ralston

From: Ralston Recorder, NE
Nov. 20, 2002

By Teresa Hoffman

RALSTON - In his short time at Ralston's Hillcrest Education Center, Troy Dannehl has seen how an alternative educational setting is beneficial to students in the Ralston area.

"It's a different environment in which kids can find their niche," said Dannehl, who took over as director last year and also teaches social studies.

The center, located in downtown Ralston, is an alternative school for high school-aged students. Dannehl said it serves students who have had problems adjusting to the regular high school setting or those who were in danger or have dropped out of high school.

"We have a good mix of students," he said. "Some of the students come here because they need a different type of structure to their learning, but most of the problems stem from social problems they had at the high school."

Whatever the reason for attending, Dannehl said the center's mission is to give students the opportunity to catch up on missed credits from the high school so that they can return or get the classes in which they need credits to graduate.

"A lot of the younger students are here on a temporary basis," Dannehl said. "It's a chance for them to earn credits so they can go back to the high school with some successful experiences behind them."

Dannehl said the younger students sometimes just have a hard time making the transition from the middle school to the high school.

"That's a big transition to make," he said. "There are so many different things to experience. Kids can be involved in many different activities and they have a hard time managing it all."

The Hillcrest Education Center is just one of the many programs in the Ralston School District aimed at helping students get the help they need to be successful.

As the district celebrates American Education Week this week, the Ralston Recorder takes a look at two programs in the district, the Hillcrest Education Center and the Hearing Impaired Program, which look to make students' educational environment better. "Making Public School Great for Every Child" is the theme of this year's celebration.

Hillcrest Education Center

The Hillcrest Education Center opened in 1999 as a pilot program for the Ralston School District. Since opening, enrollment at the center hasdoubled from 20 students in the first year to 40 this year. The hours at the center were also extended early on as more students began to enroll. Students can now attend classes in the morning or afternoon.

Students take classes on an individual study basis. The classes include math, social studies and English. Many of the teachers at the center also teach at RHS as well.

"We wanted to make the classes more at their pace and give them more one-on-one attention," Dannehl said. "I think our teachers to do a really great job spending lots of time with the students."

The more individualized learning also helps students feel comfortable with asking questions, he said.

"They aren't afraid to tell us how they feel and when they are having problems understanding something," Dannehl said. "That allows them to build a bond with the teacher so they are learning what they need to."

In addition to being students who were close to, or even those that have dropped out of school, Dannehl said a lot of the kids are living on their own with full time jobs.

"They are living in an adult word and they need to know how to make adult decisions," he said.

Whatever their age, when students first come to the center, they are required to set to set goals for themselves. The goals are ways for the student to take responsibility for their education, Dannehl said. The structure of the learning also means extra responsibility.

"Independent study situations require students to be self motivated," he said.

Hillcrest has it's share of success stories, Dannehl said. A student he always uses as an example is Sarah Dragon, who was having problems at RHS, but enrolled at the center and became successful and eventually graduated. Dragon now attends the College of St. Mary and she hopes to one day become a nurse, Dannehl said.

"We have had five kids graduate from here and go on to college or the military," he said.

Others have caught up with their work and returned to RHS.

"Those kids might not have had that opportunity without the center," he said.

Without an alternative setting for Ralston students, Dannehl said many of the kids would drop out or get jobs, but he said there are other extreme cases.

"Some of the kids could end up in jail or other bad situations," he said.

While he would like to further expand the center, Dannehl knows that may be hard because of funding issues. A grant obtained for the program after it first opened will run out this year. The Ralston School District does provide funding, but additional money would be hard to obtain, he said.

But, Dannehl said Ralston is a big enough district to have a need for an alternative school.

"As things progress, there will be more of a need for alternative placement," he said.

Hearing Impaired Program

While the alternative school program gives student a chance to leave the regular classroom setting for a more one-on-one program, the Hearing-Impaired Program is working to get deaf students into the regular classroom.

The program started 18 years ago on the elementary level and now includes 10 surrounding school districts and is offered at the Ralston Middle School and High School.

There are currently 34 students in the program. Students in kindergarten through fourth grade attend school at Hitchock Elementary, a Millard Public School in the Oak Heights Neighborhood south of Q Street. Upper elementary students go to Blumfield Elementary and secondary students go to Ralston Middle and Ralston High schools. Seven of the 34 students live in the Ralston area and others come from surrounding communities, such as Papillion-La Vista, Springfield, Bellevue, Fremont, Blair and Millard. Those districts contract with Ralston for hearing impaired services.

Steve Srb, director of the Suburban Schools program, which oversees hearing impaired and English and a Second Language students, said the program is aimed at giving deaf children a chance to participate in all areas of public education.

"Hearing impaired students face a lot of different challenges, but we are wanting to give them a chance to interact, socialize and learn in the mainstream classroom," he said.

The students are paired with an interpreter, who attends classes and activities with them. Students also have the opportunity to attend a resource class where they can get extra help on assignments. The resource classes at the high school take the place of a study hall for students in the program.

Srb said the program is not only beneficial to he hearing impaired students, but also the students and staff in those classrooms.

"This is a two-way street," he said. "It's an awareness for the other kids and a chance for them to learn what a hearing impaired child goes through."

Srb said many of the students in the program have made friends in their class and are participating in different activities. One high school student, Eric Moses, is on the football and wrestling teams.

"Eric has made great progress," Srb said. "He has got out and done activities and made friends and that has been great not only for him, but the kids around him."

Taking the Hearing Program a step further and making sure students that can hear know how to communicate is a goal of Srb has. Ralston High School does have a sign language class, he said, and Blumfield Elementary has a sign language club.

Those, he said, are great strides, but he hopes the interest in interacting with hearing impaired student remains strong.

Srb also faces new challenges when it comes to finding interpreters. As his enrollment has grown, the need for people increases, but he said the pool of applicants remains the same. The program currently has 13 interpreters for the 34 students.

"It is very hard to recruit and keep good staff," Srb said. "We are fortunate to have some wonderful people, but many of them are working two jobs and sign for other students or people."

The paperwork associated with the job and the certification needed can also be unpleasant to potential candidates. Iowa Western Community College does offer a two-year sign language program and Srb said many of the interpreters he uses have gone through that program. He said education and training needs to start early, even in elementary school, and continue to high school.

"It's amazing the number of kids here who want to learn sign language," he said. "That needs to be expanded and people need to be made aware of what the needs are."

Now that public schools are making strides to educate hearing impaired students in the mainstream classrooms, Srb wants to see universities follow that same route.

"Some colleges are working on offering more programs for deaf students," he said. "But more strides need to be made."

©2002 Ralston Recorder. All rights reserved.