Changing Lives through Alternative Education
Authors: Josh Amyx, Assistant Principal at Richmond High School, Celeste Johnson, Data Coach and Lead Teacher for Richmond Graduation Academy, and Emily Philpot, English Teacher in the Alternative Program at Richmond High School.
I am a firm believer that education changes lives. It continues to change mine! In high school, I never really cared about education. I was a son and brother with a loving family who worked hard but didn’t have all the nicest things. I loved baseball and dreamed of playing professionally. As the first in my family to go off to a traditional college (my sister paved the way for this to happen with her courage and dedication), I learned very quickly the importance of relationships in education. There weren’t too many things I despised more than reading and writing throughout my schooling. However, Mike, my student mentor at Earlham College, believed in me and showed me that reading, writing, and critical thinking were things that even college athletes did. Mary, my very first college professor, saw in me things I never saw in myself. After fighting against the inevitable until my Junior year, I finally declared my major and had a plan to get my Masters Degree and my teaching license to teach English at the secondary level.
When I landed my first teaching job at Richmond High School in 2005, I was excited. For the next five years, I learned and grew alongside a passionate team of educators and so many wonderful students. I landed what was then my dream job, the head baseball coach at Richmond High School. I could’ve retired with that team of educators and my baseball family.
And then my principal, Ms. Rae Woolpy, asked me to leave my team, my classroom, my students in the middle of the year to take over as English teacher in the alternative program at Richmond High School. And I said no way. That was a decade ago. In four and a half years of teaching in the alternative program, I saw many accomplishments and changes. I became lead teacher within less than a year, won teacher of the year in a program with great students, quit baseball to focus on kids who need and deserve to be focused on, endured the low times with the hardest heartaches and the high times with the most inspiring success stories. I was once again ready to retire as the English teacher who taught life more than anything else in a small program that made a big difference.
After another job offer fell in my lap, I went to the same principal who asked me to do the impossible just a few years prior. Now it was my turn to ask her the impossible. Hire me as the next assistant principal in charge of discipline and alternative education at Richmond High School. Oh yeah…with only an emergency admin license.
She said yes! Alternative education changed my life as a teacher. It continues to change my life as an administrator. My first task was to hire my own replacement as English teacher in the Alternative program. My father always told me, in order to be a good leader, I would have to hire people who can do my job as well or better than I can. He was right! I would say that I got lucky, but that would be incredibly selfish. The students of Richmond High School got lucky. Emily Philpot changes lives in ways educators set out in the early years of their careers to do. She is a seasoned veteran who has the passion of a rookie to cause waves and get creative in meeting the needs of students of all backgrounds and abilities, and works with a team of educators who relate to different students in different ways.
“Alternative at RHS supports and enables kids to be successful because we create a family out of the relationships we build. Staff know student stories and their goals. Admin knows and values staff, creating the best environment for success through high visibility, positive communication, and [being] partners.”
- Emily Philpot, 2020/21 RHS Teacher of the Year
Shortly after gaining the trust in the alternative team to constantly make positive gains in relationships, credits earned, and graduated students, I was again tasked to create and grow a cutting-edge high school alternative program that offered a totally different feel than anything we had seen before. The Richmond Graduation Academy was born and continues to flourish at Richmond High School under the direction of lead teacher, Celeste Johnson. Mrs. Johnson continues to offer students life-changing experiences in ways one could only imagine at the high school level. With the help of the teaching team that surrounds this program, we are able to serve students who wouldn’t have access to a quality education without the RGA program.
“RHS alternative programs are living programs where we reflect and make necessary changes to help our students. Our programs have high expectations but the flexibility and adaptability to make education achievable, accessible, and important for our students.”
- Celeste Johnson, 2015/16 RHS and RCS Teacher of the Year
For the last several years, Richmond High School has seen graduation rates well above 90%. For the last three years and counting, the alternative programs are proud to represent more than 20% of those graduates. We owe that to the relationships that are built between the staff and students that we serve. From district level administrators, to building level principals and assistants, to teachers (gen ed and spec ed), to paraprofessionals, to secretaries and custodians, to community members, and most importantly to students, Richmond High School’s Alternative programs meet students where they are and provide them with the resources and opportunities they need to succeed. We hear all the time as educators that we should focus on relationships. We need to care about students. Are we as leaders able to teach educators how to care? I used to think you either had “it” or you didn’t.
I have often wondered if there is a formula to teach educators how to be successful in even the most dire of situations. The answer is simple. YES! We accomplish this by building relationships through a formula that works. When my alternative staff was offered the opportunity to present at the National Alternative Education Association, they absolutely blew me away with the formula they presented. It is something I now believe we can teach and show others how to replicate the effectiveness of our programs.
This five step formula is effective in the Alternative Program, the Richmond Graduation Academy, and any other program who is bold enough to try it! If you want to completely change the education and opportunities your students receive, you don’t need any expensive program or gimmick. You simply need the five step process our educators use organically. Step 1: Availability – Personal connection available all the time (I know…contract hours and liabilities…). Step 2: Accessibility – Curriculum available 24 hours a day, seven days a week (no excuse this can’t happen in today’s world). Step 3: Authenticity – You have to hire the Rae Woolpy’s, Emily Philpot’s, and Celeste Johnson’s who are able and willing to be real with today’s students! From administrators to teachers, they have to be real! Step 4: Celebratory – Celebrate all victories! The small ones to you are the big ones to them. I can’t sing…but Black Betty was sung after every credit we earned when I was teaching in Alternative! We currently line the hallways with bells that we ring for each and every student who completes their graduation requirements. Then we let them paint the walls with their name, date of completion, and inspirational quote of their choice. From the smallest to the biggest accomplishment, we celebrate it! Step 5: Flexibility – Set your expectations high! But be willing to allow students to meet them in their way! “Because I said so” does not work in 2021, much less in Alternative Education! Pride has no place in today’s education system. Swallow it and allow students the freedom to meet your high expectations in ways that will blow you away!
Be real and be able to justify everything you do. I didn’t really understand it until I saw it in action. If you ask me what it takes to change education and the lives of students in today’s world, I’ll show you the people who have made that difference. I’ll show you the Mike Kitchell’s, Mary Lacy’s, Rae Woolpy’s, Stephanie Baker’s, Celeste Johnson’s, and Emily Philpot’s and so many others of the world. These are the people who lead by example. If you ask me about the examples of support a leader must have in order to work with, for, and lead people like these, I will tell you to look for the Tom’s, Sherry’s, Debby’s, and Tracy’s of the world. These are the people who help educators make alternative education…education…work!
As you can see, the words and gimmicks of education boil down to one simple word. Relationships. Think about the people who have made a difference in your life. Think about the difference you’ve made in others’ lives. These are the things that matter. The five step formula that we use at RHS make the difference we need to make because of the people that use it and build the relationships to make the impact. As a leader, you can too!