Tyreonna Fair was moments away from becoming a dropout statistic.
The self-described older student had already dropped out earlier in her high school career after her grandmother began suffering from serious health problems. Someone needed to take care of the elderly woman, and Fair decided to become her caregiver. Her grandmother's eventual death and Fair's involvement in a relationship that she described as "toxic and abusive" left the young woman with little desire to return to school.
After Fair was free of that relationship, she said she knew she wanted to finish her education. That is when she found Jim Thorpe Academy, Shawnee Public Schools' alternative education program.
"No one judged my age here," Fair said. "Everyone was very supportive and understanding."
Her enrollment at JTA has proved successful. Fair started in August 2018 lacking more than half of the credits required to graduate. However, Fair said through her own hard work and support from the teachers and administrators at JTA, she will be able to graduate in May 2019.
The success Fair has experienced inspired her and other JTA students to travel to the Oklahoma State Capitol to speak to legislators about the importance of funding alternative education in Oklahoma schools. These students shared their own personal educational struggles and their current alternative school success stories with Representative Dell Kerbs and Senator Ron Sharp. Kerbs introduced the JTA students from the floor of the House of Representatives as they watched from the gallery, and the entire House floor gave the students a standing ovation. Sharp also introduced the students to Governor Kevin Stitt.
Brendan Tungate, a senior at JTA, said it was important for he and his fellow students to tell legislators how alternative education has helped them to succeed. Tungate described his situation as similar to what many other JTA students have experienced. He had moved around to several different schools during his high school career, and he felt that he was not receiving the support he needed to complete the credits necessary to graduate. During a stay at Hope House, an emergency shelter for children up to age 18, Tungate met JTA's Director of Alternative Education Debra Watson, who showed him what the alternative academy could offer him.
Tungate said that meeting gave him hope that he could graduate high school. He now is living with a family member, working full time at a local fast food restaurant, and planning to graduate in December 2019.
"If there were more schools like JTA," Tungate said, "then more people could be helped."
The other students who traveled to the Capitol all shared similar stories of struggles and eventual success with alternative school. Senior Trinity Adams spoke of how close she was to dropping out of high school. She related a history of problems at her previous school in Texas, including numerous fights and falling victim to poor peer influences. After moving to Shawnee, a friend who had found success at JTA encouraged her to enroll in the program. Now, Adams is on track to graduate this May.
Fellow students Shaye Brittain and Gabby Baptiste spoke of stories that shared many of the same themes the others had mentioned: they started out attending traditional schools and quickly felt lost in the crowd. They began skipping classes and failing because they were not able to keep up with assignments. They all said the support system afforded them at JTA saved them.
What makes the difference between the struggles these students experienced at traditional schools as opposed to alternative education? JTA Counselor Teri Johnston credits the methods the alternative school uses to reach each student's needs. Students are advised on a plan to graduate, a plan that usually involves a mix of independent credit recovery classes and small teacher-led courses.
"When the students look at the graduation plan, they can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and they often become highly motivated to reach their goals," Johnston said.
Fair described the support system at JTA as "above the bar."
"The classes are smaller and less distracting," Fair said. "The teachers realize that everyone's life has a back story," she said, adding that the students at JTA never feel judged for past problems.
"We are like a big family here," she said.
All the students who traveled to the Capitol shared how far alternative education has taken them toward future success. Brittain, for example, is on track to graduate this May at the age of 17, when only a year before she was in danger of dropping out. She works at a local daycare and has already been admitted to the University of Oklahoma in the fall. Her ultimate goal is to become a pediatrician. Adams plans to attend a culinary school and study business after high school. Tungate is investigating several programs at Gordon Cooper Technology Center. Baptiste, who works at a local restaurant, plans to graduate in December and continue her education in a medical field program.
Watson praised Shawnee Public Schools administration for making a commitment to all children in the district to find school success. She said that alternative education is necessary for students who are struggling in traditional school.
"We have a saying here at JTA," Watson said. "Why give up when there is an alternative?"