Columbia Public Schools is implementing a new program at Douglass High School designed to help at risk students graduate with the skills they need to join the workforce. It’s called Douglas Academy, and is catered to older students who enter the school system late and would be left behind by the traditional path to graduation.
The classroom looks and sounds like any other classroom: papers strewn across tables, a smartboard hanging on the wall, and teenagers chatting and laughing with each other. Though, this handful of students is what sets this class apart.
Its part of Douglass Academy, a new program this school year that brings together Columbia Schools’ Special Education and English Language Learner–ELL– departments. This class is led by Karen Cottrell and Jennifer Burkholz, both ELL teachers working to help their students develop English skills and work towards graduation or future employment.
Cotrell says that getting students to work is a core part of this new program. Part of it also is getting them employment, because one of the requirements of this particular program is working 20 hours a week, or at least trying.
The students are even working in the classroom. Two of the walls are outlined by painters tape and have been primed. The students had taken down the old chalkboards and were learning wall preparation, and will put up the new boards themselves.
"Along with academics, we are looking on a lot of job skills; we’ve been creating resumes and doing career explorations," says Jennifer Burkholz, one of Douglass Academy's other teachers.
"We’ve done a lot of role play, how do you ask for an application? What do you say when you turn in an application? What do you put on a resume? What do you not?"
The class also takes the bus around Columbia, since many of them are new to town, just to learn where things are. All this time together has brought the group – students and teachers – closer than one might expect in a traditional classroom.
"My teachers are just wonderful, they’re seriously the best teachers ever," says Isminaz, a 19 year old student from Russia.
It’s this close relationship that enables the larger goal of Douglass Academy. Sushma Nagarkar is the district coordinator for Columbia School’s ELL Program. She says that these students need an alternative academic plan. Without any high school credits and few English skills, they need individual focus.
"The traditional track for a high school diploma very often is not the right fit for these students," says Nagarkar. "They really struggle. For one, they’re older when they come into the system and really need a lot more than what the traditional trajectory would provide."
The challenges of starting a new program like Douglass Academy are plenty, especially in the first year. Though, good news does come up. Today, one student found out his transcript from his old high school would transfer to Missouri, and that he will be taking the ACT after all.
"We are really trying to give them the academic support that they need," says Nagarkar. "They also need to be able to explore opportunities for careers.
Like any high school students, Cottrell and Burkholz’s students dream of future plans, several wanting to go to college to pursue careers like accounting or nursing.
"I graduate," says Sereen Mohammed, a student from Iraq, "and, you know, study accounting or another business.
"I’m in Douglass School," says Isminaz, "because I just want to graduate from school, because I want to go to college."
But before they graduate, the class says they’d like to squeeze in a trip to Six Flags. Or, at least the St. Louis Zoo.
A version of this story aired on Exam, KBIA's program on education in mid-Missouri.