Goats, art and understanding offered at rural alternative school
MERIDIAN — Lucy and Ricky leaped to their feet at the sound of boots hitting the pavement, the de facto dinner bell that excited the two ornery goats.
Bruce Butler, a 17-year-old who wore a baseball cap, jeans and a silver cross necklace that sparkled against his white T-shirt, pulled two handfuls of straw out of a canvas bag and dropped each in front of the two pygmy goats, who have become the unofficial mascots of FAME Academy.
“This right here is my favorite part of the day,” said Butler, a junior at the alternative high school in rural Stephens County.
Each morning Bruce and some of his classmates feed the goats, tend the flowers and do some general upkeep in a fenced-in courtyard outside the 71-year-old school building.
FAME Academy is a school of last resort, a second — or sometimes third or fourth — chance at finishing high school for nearly 40 students from five rural school districts in southern Oklahoma.
Officially part of Comanche Public Schools, the co-op style of alternative education also draws students from the districts of Walters, Velma-Alma, Ryan and Waurika.
Some students ride two buses each morning to get to FAME Academy, while others drive 40 minutes one way.
Butler lives next door to the school, giving him the shortest commute.
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"It's more relaxed here and I feel like (the teachers and staff) understand us better," Butler said.
The state requires each school district to offer an alternative education program with the goal of reducing the number of dropouts.
While independent alternative schools are common in large urban school districts like Oklahoma City, Edmond and Tulsa, many school systems are often only able to offer struggling students a dedicated classroom.
The need for alternative education can be just as large in rural communities, especially in Stephens and Jefferson counties, where the closure of a major refinery and the loss of manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years have led to an increase in poverty, hunger and homelessness.
"We have the same problems that the urban schools have, it's just in a rural setting," said Elizabeth Ressel, the director of FAME Academy.
Nearly all of FAME's students over the last five years have qualified for free or reduced-price lunch due to poverty levels. Nearly 60 percent were homeless at one point, which included students living in cars or families moving in together after a massive company layoff.
"Almost 70 percent didn't have a father in the home," Ressel said.
The state allocates some money for students in alternative education programs, but state budget cuts have seen FAME's state funding reduced by 60 percent over the last several years, Ressel said.
The school operates on about $50,000 a year, along with grants and community donations.
There are 304 alternative education programs across the state. Rural schools partnering together or with another entity is common, said Jennifer Wilkinson, the state Department of Education's director of alternative education.
"Rural schools typically tend to partner, either with a career tech or other districts, for their alternative education programs. I even have one (district) that works with a tribal nation," Wilkinson said.
'I don't feel stressed'
At her former school in Ryan, Kaylee Miller would regularly skip class or sometimes walk out of school during the day.
"They made me feel different from everybody else," Miller said about the students and staff at her former school.
As the absences piled up, Miller was referred to FAME Academy, where she embraced the school's art program.
"She's great in art, she's amazing," said Ressel, a compliment that caused Miller to spark a shy smile, partially hidden behind her long hair.
"I love to draw, I also like to paint and I love being here because they have all that," Miller said. "It helps me bring out what I feel onto the paper. At my old school I felt like I wasn't able to be myself because it seemed like everybody there has this view on how you are suppose to be and look. I just felt like I was different than everybody and I didn't want to come (to school)."
FAME Academy's art program includes painting, mosaic tile work, crochet and pottery. Before making art classes a requirement for all students, Ressel did her own study and found the students who chose to take art had better attendance and fewer run-ins with law enforcement.
"We are really more of an art school," Ressel said.
The FAME Academy art program, which is funded through an Oklahoma Arts Council grant, is led by Glenna Pace, a retired teacher who is the school's artist in residence.
During one of the first art classes of the new school year, Pace talked with students about how individual lines and shapes make up the basics of drawing. She encouraged students to view a painting as a bunch of tiny brush strokes put together, rather than a giant complicated image.
It's the same in life.
"If you just focus on taking the next minute and getting through it, that's an accomplishment for many of these students," Pace said. "Then you do the next step because ... right now the important thing is to get through the day."
While most of the academic work is through independent learning, the art classes are more group-oriented. Even teenagers who have never done art often embrace it as a way to express what they might be going through, Pace said.
"I'm not a psychologist, but I do know that art is healing," Pace said.
Miller said her art work has given her more confidence and is one of many things that make her look forward to coming to school each day.
"I'm a lot happier," Miller said. "This school has changed the way I've acted a lot. I don't feel stressed whenever I'm here. I don't feel stressed in having to get up in the morning to come here."