The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 2, 2013

What a difference a little success can bring a life

Lincoln Academy provides more than classes to its students ... it offers a measure of hope

By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — The perception of some in the public of Enid’s Lincoln Academy, the district’s alternative school, is it is the place for trouble makers, or slow learners.

Nothing, say the men and women of Lincoln Academy’s faculty, could be further from the truth.

“They think that’s where the bad kids go,” said 14-year veteran Lincoln Academy English teacher Kent Chesser. “We are the school where kids are just struggling in the regular classroom environment. If a kid is having to work 40, 60 hours just to pay the bills, it is hard for him to go to the traditional school all day.”

Not that Lincoln Academy students don’t have issues. According to a school handout, 69 percent exhibited excessive truancy, 21 percent were suspended for aggressive behavior, while 38 percent had other behavior problems.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Thirteen percent of Lincoln’s students are teen parents, while 2 percent have more than one child. Eight percent were battered by a spouse/partner; 33 percent were the victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse; 29 percent suffer from depression;, 28 percent live on their own; and 22 percent exhibit anxiety disorders.

Yet, since the school first opened in 1993, it has had a 90 percent success rate among its students, said principal Jarry Hillman.

“When kids come here they have their heads down, they have little or no self-esteem,” he said. “It is fun to see such a change in their demeanor when they have some success.”

Varied stories of students

One of Lincoln’s current success stories is senior Cameron Stittsworth.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am if I wasn’t at Lincoln,” he said. “I am proud to say I am Lincoln Academy. I’m a survivor. Lincoln changed my life, I’m happy.”

Stittsworth previously attended Kremlin-Hillsdale and Enid High.

“I’m not good at the big school,” he said about EHS. “Smaller classes are better for me. They want to teach you. It’s hands-on. They are there for you. They are motivators. They are here to make a difference.”

Without Lincoln, Stittsworth said, he would have dropped out of school. Now, he is on track to graduate in the spring with an eye on pursuing his first love, music.

“I’m happy I’m here,” he said. “It was a big breakthrough.”

Tyler McNeill already had dropped out, but when he learned he needed a high school diploma to realize his dream of becoming a U.S. Marine, he turned to Lincoln Academy.

“It’s a very good learning environment,” said McNeill. “You have more time with the teachers, it’s less crowded, a lot less drama. Overall it’s a more comfortable but structured environment. It’s a lot easier to focus.”

He credited Lincoln’s faculty for making the difference for students.

“The teachers are just overall good people, and they want to see you succeed,” he said. “That’s the thing I loved most about going here.”

McNeill reports to Marine Corps basic training in July, with the goal of working in security forces. Without Lincoln, he said, “I’d probably just be skatin’ by. I wouldn’t be fulfilling any goals or dreams.”

Ciara Zumalt, a junior at Lincoln, said she had difficulty focusing on her studies at Enid High and as a result couldn’t get her grades up. Large classes made learning difficult for her.

“I tried really hard to get into Lincoln, and whenever I did all this stress just went away, completely,” she said. “I actually found a reason why I wanted to come to school. I like learning now.

“This place is probably the best thing that’s happened to me since a long time.”

Lincoln’s teachers, she said, “are very caring. They don’t doubt you. They’ll do anything to help you. If you fall down they’ll pick you right back up.”

After graduating in 2014, Ciara hopes to obtain welding and piercing licenses and to study massage therapy.

Without Lincoln, she said, “I would probably still be in school, but I would not be doing very well. I probably would have gotten held back. No matter how hard I tried my brain couldn’t focus because there was so much going on around me.”

Seeing the results

Lincoln’s teachers are familiar with, and gratified by, such stories.

Kelli Irvin has been an English teacher at Lincoln for more than five years. Both she and Chesser say after being at Lincoln they wouldn’t want to teach anyplace else.

“I have a greater opportunity to get to know the kids on a one-on-one basis,” said Chesser. “It gives us a chance to kind of connect with the kids. That’s one of the main reasons we’re so successful. That, and we’re flexible.”

Lincoln offers morning, afternoon and evening sessions, whichever fits best into a student’s life. Many Lincoln students work to support themselves and their families, and they receive credits for their employment. Others spend part of their day in classes at Autry Technology Center.

“It allows us to bend a little bit to fit the kids’ schedule, so the kids have a chance to be more successful,” said Chesser.

“I just try to treat the students the way I hope my four children are being treated at school,” said Irvin. “They know I’m not just here, I’m here to help them.”

Classes at Lincoln are small, with around 10 to 14 students in each class. That is an advantage for both teachers and pupils, Irvin said.

“I can help them more one on one and address their different learning needs,” she said. “If they don’t get it I know they don’t get it usually right off the bat, and I can help them. I can talk to them and explain it to them in a different way.”

Chesser and Irvin credit Hillman for creating a relaxed yet organized atmosphere.

“I don’t know how he does it, but he does,” said Chesser. “He does a remarkable job recognizing the needs the students have and then trying to make sure that we meet those needs.”

Struggles abound

Those needs are as varied as the students, he said, including students living on their own struggling to keep food on the table to those still living with their parents but dealing with medical or emotional issues.

“We teach them a lot of basic life skills, on top of teaching them English, teaching them some basic life skills about the real world,” said Irvin.

Hearing heart-wrenching stories about their students’ struggles is nearly a daily occurrence, Chesser said.

“You name it, we’ve had it,” he said. “There are so many other variables in their life, sometimes we have to address those variables. A lot of the kids here have things going on besides just school.”

“It’s hard to get a student to focus on an English paper when they’re dealing with not having any electricity in their house for the last three months,” said Irvin.

The school occasionally receives donations passed along to the students who need them, like shoes, clothes, gas money and gift cards to help purchase diapers.

Lincoln students are open and accepting, Irvin said.

“Everybody here has something they are dealing with,” she said, “so they are very accepting of everybody here.”

Every year Lincoln sends a few of its graduates on to college.

“Probably not as high a percentage as we’ve liked, but when you look at their economic background I’m surprised any of them ever decide to go,” Chesser said.

“A lot of our graduating seniors are the first ones to graduate from high school in their family,” said Irvin.

Each spring Lincoln recognizes its graduates at Senior Appreciation Night.

“It is just so neat to see those kids,” said Chesser, “and how many of them will say, ‘Man, I remember my junior high teachers told me I would never make it,’ but here I am walking cross the stage.

“It hits them that night, that ‘I have accomplished something that everybody told me I couldn’t.’ That is one of the neatest feelings that there is.”

“We have a part where we have senior speeches and a handful of them will get up and talk,” Irvin said. “There’s not a dry eye in the house.”

There is a waiting list to get into Lincoln, said Hillman.

“A lot of people want to come to Lincoln, but we look for the ones who need to come here,” he said.

Lincoln is open to students in middle school through 12th grade.