Alaska News

After-school classes keep Burchell's kids on track

WASILLA -- Most of the students at Burchell High School don't go home when the last bell rings.

Instead, they stay on for after-school classes. And nobody locks them in, either.

Burchell's unusual after-school program lures students with fun and interesting classes that rack up credits fast so they can graduate sooner.

These unusual after-school sessions have drawn national attention. The alternative high school along the Parks Highway became one of just 20 selected for a nationwide study on the "best practices" of after-school programs -- meaning, what programs work best at keeping kids in school and getting them graduated.

Two consultants visited in mid-September. They will submit a report to the U.S. Department of Education later this fall that recommends techniques worthy of replication at other schools.

The consultants were "very impressed" with what they saw, said consultant Duane Rupert.

"What is happening at Burchell should be replicated all over the country," Rupert said. "There's a very inspired staff there."

The after-school program, which began six years ago, has led to a rise in graduation rates and academic success, school officials say. Last year, 83 seniors got diplomas, or more than half -- the school's best graduation rate in its 20-plus-year history. And for the first time, Burchell last year met federal annual progress goals.

Students and staff credit the program, which is voluntary.

"A lot of our kids come to us behind in credits, also behind in academic knowledge, below grade level," said principal Dave Holmquist. "It offers us the opportunity to extend instruction and get those kids graduated in time."

A DIFFERENT KIND OF SCHOOL

While many schools around the country give students a safe place or positive environment once regular classes end, Burchell's after-school program is different because so many students stay late to learn more, consultant Rupert said.

About 175 of the school's nearly 250 students stay on after regular classes end at 1:25 p.m., sometimes until 6 p.m.

After-school starts at 1:30 p.m., a generally seamless transition marked on a recent afternoon by clumps of students clogging the hallways until Holmquist waded in and nudged them to class or out the door. This quarter's after-school classes include dance, cooking, outdoor recreation, Japanese, creative writing, psychology/sociology, poetry, photography, short story and journalism.

By 1:45, all was quiet. Math lab students bent over their papers. Art students painted watercolor miniatures. A journalism student -- the class interviewed the consultants during their visit -- sat at a computer in the school's communal "big room" and polished up a paper for her 3 p.m. class. Instructor Paul Morley sat at his own desk, just a few feet away, and gave her some gentle grief about doing another rewrite.

Burchell isn't like other schools in the Mat-Su. Students, many of them struggling in traditional schools, apply to come. They arrive with personal battles as well as academic ones. Some bear emotional scars from abusive families. Some sleep in their cars. Others arrive exhausted from soothing teething babies all night. Burchell teaches more homeless students and teen parents than any other school in the district, according to Diane Demoski, school nurse and grant administrator.

Because many students come from difficult backgrounds, Burchell's underlying philosophy is to first build trust between students and staff, then "build hope," Holmquist said. "Once you get there, they can do anything."

One art student wearing a "Genius by Birth, Slacker by Choice" T-shirt summed up the Burchell philosophy this way: "Less stress on the students."

REASONS TO SUCCEED

Dance students say they look forward to class all day. They stick it out through regular classes so they can hit the hardwood floor at 1:30 p.m. to swing dance or waltz, tango or boogie.

One dance student, 16-year-old Kat Chudnofsky, transferred to Burchell from Houston High School a year behind in credits. The class kept her motivated to stick with school for the first few weeks, when she was the new kid.

"At least I have dance," she'd say to herself.

That attitude caught consultant Rupert's eye. Students with an incentive to get through regular classes tend to stay in school.

"They're feeling better about themselves, about school, about the adults in their lives," he said. "When all those things happen, you can pretty much guess the outcomes are going to be positive."

Another dance student, Cala Edge, was 15 and pregnant when she dropped out of school two years ago.

Then she entered Burchell last year and took advantage of extra credits from after-school classes to graduate next May. Edge loves math, and plans to be the first person in her family to go to college, studying accounting.

She hopes her 1-year-old daughter will someday see her as a role model.

"I'm still actually going to school and trying to make up for my mistakes," said Edge, now 17, a serene brunette with a pierced tongue and an old soul.

"I'm hoping she'll see past me getting pregnant at 15 and look at the better things."

Find Zaz Hollander online at adn.com/contact/zhollander or call 352-6711.

By ZAZ HOLLANDER

zhollander@adn.com

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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