Students in an alternative program transition to in-person classes

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Aaliyah Deserly. Photo by Sheila Regan.

Tenth grader Aaliyah Deserly returned to in-person learning at Anoka-Hennepin Regional High School, an alternative school, the second week of February, and she describes the experience as “a rush.” 

“It feels awesome,” she said. “Like, I have a motivation to do my work again, instead of being at home just sitting at home.”

Deserly, who is from the Red Lake Nation, is enrolled at the Alternative Learning Center, a program in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. The program caters to students for whom mainstream schools weren’t the right fit. Alternative schooling features smaller groups, individualized learning, and/or computerized instruction.

For Deserly, distance learning has been a struggle. 

“I wasn’t focused on my work,” Deserly said. “When I got in distance learning, I stopped focusing on school because I would just wake up, have to go watch my sisters, stuff like that.”

There are 10 people in the home where she lives, including one grandparent, a parent, and the rest siblings and cousins who have been adopted. 

Trying to do schoolwork in that environment, Deserly said, “was crazy.” 

“You had all these kids running around,” she said. “I couldn’t just focus on me.” 

Deserly received a computer from school, but her mom had to upgrade the internet in the house because so many people were using it. 

Her grades “just slipped,” she said. “As soon as the pandemic started.” 

Now that she’s back in school, Deserly said being able to focus on her work instead of taking care of her younger family members is a big help. She also just started a new job at White Castle and is excited to be bringing in some income.

Her plan is to bring her GPA up so she can graduate on time. 

According to Nancy Chave, principal of the Anoka-Hennepin Regional High School and Anoka-Hennepin Technical High School, the two schools have been working to provide safety and best practice protocols for the students.

In February, Regional began allowing some students to come four days a week. Since Gov. Tim Walz’s latest education announcement allowing middle and high school students to return to classrooms, that will extend to all students beginning March 22, Chave said. 

For Chave’s teachers, Mondays will be used for extra prep for those doing both distance and in-person instruction. 

“We are grateful we are back in,” Chave said. “It’s been very difficult for our students.” 

Heather Forse, the assistant principal at Regional, said students who are in the at-risk program are young people that weren’t successful in a mainstream high school. 

“We have a lot of students with anxiety, we have a lot of homeless students, we have a lot of students that maybe their home lives aren’t as great as we would like them to be,” she said. “I have two or three students right now living in hotels with four or five younger siblings, and that’s where they’ve been quarantined for a year at a hotel room. School is the one place they can come, they get to be themselves.” 

Forse said some of the young people stopped participating at all during distance learning. 

“We lose a lot of them,” she said. “These are the students that are already at risk of not graduating on time. They’re the ones that have struggled academically, and they need that structure and that in person instruction every day. When we take that away, and we only give them two days a week, it’s not enough.

Sarah Perry, a social worker at Regional, runs a transition program at the school for students coming out of addiction and mental health treatment centers. 

Some of those students, she said, have chosen to remain distant. 

“I think it’s really hard for anybody to be out of a routine,” she said. “Distance learning was not a routine for them, so that was really hard. And then they came into this routine of, ‘I don’t have to wake up, my bed is calling my name all day long, I can eat when I want, I don’t have to log in, because there’s nobody physically there telling me I need to do something.’” 

Now students are coming back into the school routine, which has been a challenge. “The ones who are coming are really showing us that this learning was really, really difficult for them, because they want to be here. They’re showing up every day, some are asking to come more days,” Perry said.

One thing that has helped, she said, is that since some students have come back, they serve as an enticement to the students doing distance learning at home. 

For Perry’s daily advisory meeting, she works with both online and in-person students at the same time. “It’s been fun to help support them build that relationship with other people, whether it’s on Google Meet or in person,” she said. 

Ben Geisler, a science teacher at the school, said not having students be able to participate in labs has been a real detriment to their learning. 

Ben Geisler. Photo by Sheila Regan.

Now, having students back has “been phenomenally better” for those who have returned. “Not awesome, but way better,” he said. “They have been voicing like, ‘Oh, it makes a little more sense.’” 

Geiser said returning to school has become a political topic. 

“I don’t know how a virus became political,” Geiser said, acknowledging some teachers in the school are high-risk, and have not returned to in-person teaching. 

“We all have our different opinions on the virus and interacting and social distance. There’s all the outside of the classroom feelings and emotions and opinions. We’ve worked really hard to try to be together and support each other and just be— ‘Hey, wherever you land, politically, emotionally, physically, we’re all together in this.’” 

Rymir Williams, an 11th grader at Regional and another member of the alternative program, said it feels good to be around people again. 

Rymir Williams. Photo by Sheila Regan.

“That one on one help when you can you need it? Yeah, it feels very good,” he said. 

Distance learning was tough, Williams said. “Being at home, when there’s no one around, you just feel like, you know, just stay in bed, go to sleep, or just do this later. Or, when you do have a class that’s more hands on, it’s harder to do that class.” 

Williams, who lives in Coon Rapids, said he was often home by himself during distance learning, as both of his parents had to work. “Early in the morning, when everyone is home, and I’m in class, it’s kinda like loud. So, you get distracted just a little bit. But when everyone leaves, the house is just like, it’s quiet, you don’t want to really do anything.” 

Back in school four days a week, Williams said he’s working to bring his grades up. What will help him succeed, he says is a good support system, with people around him willing to support his efforts. 

“I had the okay to go Tuesday through Friday,” he said.  “I feel as though that was best for me, because I do need to be in a classroom around somebody to let me know when to stay focused.”

According to Chave, the intervention work for students who fell behind this year due to distance learning will be immense. That includes the biggest summer school year the district has ever had.

“This is brand new territory for all our educators.”

Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based journalist. She's a regular contributor to The UpTake, and also contributes to TC Daily Planet and City Pages. Her work can also be found at mnartists, VitaMN, Classical MPR and in other local publications.

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