Some of the hallways of the old Bowman Elementary School in Elbert County are alive with students again, though the students that grace the halls these days are not beginning their education, instead they’re getting a second chance to finish up their public school careers with a high school diploma – something many of them had given up on, until now.
Mountain Education Charter High School (MEC) opened its doors in Bowman last summer, making a deal with Elbert County school system officials to renovate and use portions of the elementary school, which was closed a few years ago due to budget cuts.
“It’s a game changer for these students and a real gift to this community,” said site director Dr. Sherrie Gibney-Sherman, who also serves as a Madison County school system assistant superintendent. Gibney-Sherman splits the director’s job with Sonja Barnett from Elbert County two nights per week.
Billed as “North Georgia’s answer to the dropout problem,” Bowman MEC is the tenth such high school in the MEC system to open its doors to high school students who are struggling or who have given up altogether on high school. Bowman MEC is a cooperative effort between Elbert, Madison and Hart county school systems who were seeking an alternative way to increase their graduation rates, while helping students who, for whatever reason, found that regular high school just wasn’t working for them. Gibney-Sherman credits Madison County superintendent Dr. Allen McCannon with helping spearhead efforts to bring MEC, with campuses from Blue Ridge to Cleveland, to this area.
“Though we serve students primarily from these three counties, any student who’s withdrawn from high school can enroll,” Gibney-Sherman said.
MEC is open four nights a week (Monday to Thursday) from 4 to 9:30 p.m. Current enrollment stands at over 100 students, with 17 of those from Madison County. The school is growing so fast that currently several classrooms in another wing are under renovation to add room for more students.
“This is a public high school just like any other; MEC is not a GED program and it’s not an alternative school,” Gibney-Sherman said. “This is your tax dollars at work….every program you’re used to hearing about (in regular schools) we have here, but it’s different.
One way that it’s different is that it is a night school, providing more flexibility to students who may have jobs or children of their own to care for during the day.”
Another way it’s different from regular public schools is that classroom sizes are smaller and each student works at his or her own pace, using online courses tailored to meet their needs.
“This (curriculum) is one-on-one computer-based,” Gibney-Sherman said. “If they need help, they just raise their hands and a teacher is there to assist them.”
And Gibney-Sherman said this intensive form of study is paying off; MEC schools are turning out students whose grades are above the state average in all classes.
“That’s huge, because these are the kids who would otherwise be ‘gone’ from the school system,” she said. And she stresses that MEC is not taking money away from the school systems in the counties they serve, because these students were already off, or on their way to being “off” the school rosters anyway.
“It will actually make graduation rates go up,” she said.
There is no “time-limit” for finishing – since students work at their own pace, they can work as hard and as long as they need to. Classes are based on mastery learning, so students study and review course material until they can pass the exam. Twenty-three credits are needed to complete graduation requirements, as well as mandated state testing. Once these are completed, students get to participate in a graduation ceremony, complete with cap and gown. MEC is SACS-accredited and all credits earned are transferable to any high school.
In addition, student enrollment is on-going. Students 16 to 20 years old can apply to MEC anytime year round as long as they have a withdrawal from their previous school and they have attempted ninth grade studies. After they register and are accepted, a counselor works with them to establish an LAP (Life Action Plan) individualized for their specific needs.
Discipline problems are virtually non-existent – if students misbehave, they leave campus.
“And they have to leave, there is no standing around in the parking lot,” Gibney-Sherman said. An Elbert County resource officer is on campus at all times to help ensure there are no disruptions.
Tuition is free and various assistance programs are available, such as gas cards.
Bus transportation is also provided. In Madison County, a county school bus picks up and drops off students every day in the Danielsville City Hall parking lot.
School counselors, social service specialists, career specialists, graduation coaches, mentors and others are all on hand to help students find the right path to graduation.
Evening meals are provided. The cost for these is $2.95 per meal, and students can apply for reduced or free meals.
“Some of these kids are ready for college when they finish and we help them get ready for that,” Gibney-Sherman said. Others are ready for the armed services (which now requires a high school diploma to enlist, instead of a just a GED) or want to go directly into the workforce, and there is also help available for these choices.
And she readily admits the whole concept of what is called “the MEC way” has been a learning experience for her and for all the teachers and administrators who are involved with the charter school.
“I found out quickly that you can’t assume just because you’ve worked in a high school that you know what to do here, ‘cause you don’t,” she said. “For starters, MEC works to identify an individual student’s barriers (to learning) aggressively, and then tackles them aggressively, something that’s not always so easy to do in a (regular) high school.”
In return for all this assistance, students are expected to perform.
“They have to work, this is like a job,” she said.
There are 14 Madison County school system staff members who work at MEC part-time. Once of those is high school science teacher Andy Felt, who teaches two nights a week at Bowman MEC.
“I just love it; it’s a great place for students and it’s definitely filling a gap in education,” Felt said. “It’s isn’t taking away from traditional high school, mostly what we get here are kids that have given up (on graduating). We pull out all the distractions and obstacles that may have interfered with their education and give them a second chance to get it done with a little more flexibility than a regular public school.”
Felt said he also likes that he has more time at MEC to provide lots of one-on-one help, which gives him a lot of personal satisfaction as a teacher.
“They put their hand up and we’re there,” he said. “It’s great when you see them see that they can do this and if they stick with it they can’t fail or be left behind.”
For more information on Bowman MEC, call the school at 706-213-4300 (after 4 p.m.) or go to www.mymec.org
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