School gives Escambia students a second chance
(Pensacola, FL – March 17, 2013)
Akiya Williams was expelled from public school last school year for behavior problems.
But the 16-year-old sophomore says her life has turned around since then, thanks to her time in Camelot Academy’s transition program.
Akiya is one of the 188 students who attend Camelot, the Escambia County School District’s alternative school for grades six through 12.
Akiya began the program in August, after being expelled from Washington High School. After one semester, she was deemed ready to go back to regular school but she decided to finish the school year at Camelot.
“Here, it’s like a big family, a community of great people,” she said. “I feel welcome.”
Camelot is the result of the consolidation of E-SEALS, which served special-needs students, and A.V. Clubbs, the district’s former alternative school for middle-schoolers.
Philadelphia-based alternative school company Camelot Schools — which has sites across the country — entered into a partnership with the school district in 2010. It has run the program ever since.
Camelot’s third school year has been a banner one so far. There is new leadership at the school, as well as some new staff members. And the school has a revamped list of “norms,” behaviors students follow instead of rules.
One norm is that there is no reason to hurt another person. Another is that education and the classroom are sacred.
Executive Director Drew Stem, 27, came to Pensacola from Philadelphia when Camelot began operating the school.
He started as a behavioral staff member and then became a team leader before taking the helm in fall 2012.
He said overall behavior has improved drastically this year.
Last year, there were nearly 40 behavior incidents on school buses. Those range from fights to bringing drugs onto the bus. That’s been reduced to five or six so far this school year.
He said a lot of the students have experienced the unimaginable at home. Some have seen their parents incarcerated, shot or addicted to drugs. Others have no food on the table.
“My staff members are extremely devoted to the children,” Stem said. “It’s challenging to work with these students, but at the same time it is extremely rewarding.”
Discipline, he said, is generally handled through in-school suspension, rather than out-of-school suspension.
“We feel suspending the kids is hurting the kids,” Stem said.
A typical day for Camelot students begins and ends in “town house” meetings.
With the middle-schoolers in one room and the high-schoolers in another, the students take turns telling their peers what they hope to get out of the school day.
“To stay on point,” one student says.
“To have a good day,” says another.
The meetings are led by students in orange shirts who have reached “tiger shark” status, which means they display consistently good behavior.
“The one goal everybody has here is to get out,” Stem said told the high school group. “In order to get out, you need to follow the norms. You guys have been doing well.”
Afterward, the students spend the day moving from class to class in teams of 10 to 20. One wing of the building is designated for middle school and the other is designated for high school.
On Thursday, seventh-grader Caliph Smith, 14, said he appreciates the one-on-one time he gets with his teachers.
“You can’t get that in regular school,” he said. “I came here because I had disrespect problems. They worked with me and helped me.”
Miranda Irvin’s 15-year-old son Devan started attending Camelot after being expelled from Woodham Middle School last year. Since he has been there, Devan has become more serious about his education.
“His grades have improved tremendously,” Irvin said. “He went from C’s, D’s and F’s at Woodham to making A’s, B’s and C’s. They teach him leadership skills. They do a lot of one-on-one.”
Many of the Camelot students, like Devan, do not have a father figure at home. Irvin said she is grateful Devan has the male staff members, who serve as role models.
“For most of the boys, that’s what they need,” she said. “With them being in his life and the way they take extra time in him, he has improved.”
Escambia County Schools Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said the Camelot staff has worked well with the district.
“The smaller setting has been beneficial to students and there have been a lot of success stories relayed over time by both students and parents,” he said