John Stark to end Connections, an alternative high school program

  • John Stark Regional High School on April 7, 2021 Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/7/2021 4:50:46 PM

Jenna Bowen, a junior in the Connections program at John Stark High School, describes herself as a student who “would have slipped through the cracks” if it had not been for alternative education.

Bowen said she struggled in regular high school classes her freshman year and likely wouldn’t have accrued enough credits to make it to junior year if she hadn’t switched to the alternative program, where she thrives in smaller class sizes with individual attention.

“I have never felt so comfortable and excited to attend school,” said Bowen, 17. “I’ve dreaded school my whole life, and they created this safe environment where we could learn and be honest with each other.”

But for Bowen, that’s about to change. John Stark School District announced Monday that it is discontinuing the Connections program, an alternative education option for students who have difficulty succeeding in a regular school environment, and bringing the students back to the main high school building next school year.

Superintendent Jacqueline Coe said the decision to end the program was partly prompted by the expiration of the district’s lease on the program building, located in the Liberty Hill office park in Henniker, which Coe said “wasn’t fully meeting the needs of the program.” She said the decision not to renew the lease made administrators reconsider the program’s structure moving forward.

“We realized bringing students back to campus was an opportunity to rethink how we support all students who need an alternative path,” said Coe, who added that the decision was not budget-related. “For years, we’ve been asking a small program to meet a really wide range of needs. The staff there has invested an incredible amount of care and effort, but there are more opportunities and resources at the main campus.”

The final decision to end the program was made by Coe as superintendent; the John Stark School Board did not vote on it. Teachers were informed at a meeting April 2, and students were told on Monday.

“The rub with this decision is I did make it fairly unilaterally, with some members of the SAU team and (Principal Gary Dempsey), which is not how I like to operate,” Coe said at a school board meeting Monday. “I do feel confident in this decision, but it has understandably rubbed some people the wrong way.”

The Connections program is an alternative education option where students learn through community connections, civic and social experiences and hands-on learning. There are currently 15 students in the program; enrollment is capped at 20. It’s staffed by five teachers and a school psychologist, all of whom will be offered contracts to continue working in the district.

“It’s basically a program for students who have not been successful at the main campus at the high school for a variety of reasons – it could be behavioral, it could be attendance-related,” said Justin Connell, who teaches Connections science classes and also leads team-building exercises and community service. “A lot of cases that come to us just aren’t successful in the larger classrooms. We describe ourselves as more of a community. We work with the students to not only get through their academic stuff, but getting through life and becoming an upstanding citizen and making good choices.”

The program, which was once called Equity II, has taken many forms over the years. Coe said the program once had more of a behavioral focus, then became special education approved. The special education designation was removed when it shifted to become an alternative program under the name John Stark Connections in 2018.

Connell said the news has been hard for both staff and students. On Monday, he said teachers spent a portion of the school day process the information with the students.

Bowen said she was “distraught” when she found out, saying the program is “like family” to her.

“I was going through a lot of things freshman year, personal issues and family issues. I got in a lot of trouble, I had some behavioral issues,” Bowen said. “I went to this program and I have none of the problems I encountered at the high school. I wouldn’t be a junior right now; I wouldn’t have my credits if it wasn’t for these teachers.”

Her favorite memories of the program include volunteering at a local farm, watching the WWI film “1917” at a movie theater, doing cooking projects with her peers, getting her PE credits at the nearby fitness center and morning meetings where students share their feelings or meditate.

John Stark Regional High School student Kira Bergeron worked with Connections in 2019 as a peer leader, joining the students for breakfast and some team-building activities. As a student in the main high school building, she said she didn’t know much about the program before, and was surprised to see students she thought had left the district thriving in a “family-type” setting. Bergeron, 18, spoke against ending the program during the public comment section of Monday’s school board meeting.

“I’ve known some of those kids since kindergarten and I knew they had a rough transition into high school,” Bergeron told the Monitor on Wednesday. “When I saw them last year in Connections, it was great to see the progress that they had made.”

There’s currently no collective plan in place for the Connections students after the program ends. Coe said school administrators will meet with families individually over the next few weeks to create individual plans for students. She said other John Stark offerings like the Life Skills Program, and the school’s work on competency-based education and different diplomas may offer some options for students.

Bowen says the uncertainty is hard for her and her underclassmen peers.

“It’s challenging because a lot of us have a lot of anxiety,” Bowen said. “It’s hard to not know what your next year is going to look like.”

Both Bowen and Bergeron referred to a feeling of “distance” between students in Connections and those at John Stark, partly fueled by the physical separation but also by social stereotypes about “troubled kids” who take alternative ed.

The physical separation will end when the Connections students return to the main building, but some worry the social divide may not.

“I believe it will be difficult for them to learn in an environment that they might not feel safe because they had prior conflict,” Bergeron said.

Connell said he believes many of his students have learned coping skills and strategies at Connections that will give them a good chance of being successful if they were to go back to a regular education classroom.

“We’re in it for the kids, so while it’s kind of hard to put on a brave face for the kids, I think we’re really reminding them that regardless of what happens, we are going to be looking out for their best interests and advocating for them for the rest of their school career,” Connell said.

In the meantime, Bowen is still thinking about her next steps. She knows other districts, like Goffstown, offer alternative education programs, and she would consider transferring into one of them.

But she says she hopes she won’t have to return to the John Stark Regional building she associates with the depression and anxiety she faced freshman year.

“There’s a reason that we have our school and we are not attending regular school. It didn’t work for any of us,” Bowen said. “And this has really saved so many lives. I brag to everyone about how this program has literally saved me. This program was my saving grace.”

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