A day in the life of Crossroads

2005-05-14T23:00:00Z A day in the life of CrossroadsJOHN FITZGERALD Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
May 14, 2005 11:00 pm  • 

A day in the life of Crossroads Alternative School begins with a jolt.

A jolt of java.

About nine of the high school's students begin their day working for Crossroads Coffee, a student-run business that sells coffee, tea, cookies and treats to students and teachers at Crossroads, several other schools and Lincoln Center. The students do the work, balance the books and share the profits, said Barbara Haws, who oversees the business as part of her food service, hospitality and family-life class.

Nicole Lopez, Destiny Park and Ashley Ask create the drinks at the coffee station. Lopez says they had a busy morning.

"We had a total of about 20 takeouts and 10 in-house today, and we were done in about 50 minutes. With three of us working here, it's easier to keep track of the drinks."

Brenton Baker stands by the sink making scotcheroos. One aspect of the family-life class he didn't like was the "Baby Think-About-It" course in which students care for a doll that cries and demands attention.

"It sucked. It kept me up all night crying and stuff. Now I don't even want a girlfriend."

Haws talks about what kind of student arrives at Crossroads.

"Students come here because, for a variety of different reasons, they didn't fit in to the home high school. Some don't come back after the 10-day rule (in which after the 10th day absent, students lose credit for the classes they've taken). Then there are teen moms and dads, trying to support their significant other while also going to school. Some have anxiety disorders where they need a specialized setting. In a large high-school setting they can't interact or even ask questions."

It's breakfast time, and Jess McKeen is having "an egg-and-bacon something - I don't know what it is, man." He's also having hash browns and chocolate milk.

He says he's attended Crossroads for two years.

"I like the school. It's not a huge, gigantic, get-lost-in-the-crowd kind of place. You know everyone here."

He says he was home-schooled until the eighth grade, when he attended Lewis and Clark Middle School.

"I didn't stay the entire year. My mom didn't like the teachers there, and I didn't like going to school there. Mom just signed me up for Crossroads and said, 'You're going to go here now.' "

Stephanie Hall is out of her classroom, substituting for a teacher who called in sick at the last minute. It's a reading class, which makes subbing easy because the students can spend their time reading.

Hall talks about the philosophy of Crossroads, which is located on the corner of 14th Street West and Grand Avenue and has 72 students and 15 teachers and staff members.

"Our goal is to provide a safe atmosphere that is accepting and tolerant of students who are at risk. We try to establish a relationship with each kid. Our ratio of students to staff helps this, and everyone works at it, even the office staff. Everyone gets involved with the students.

"And we've been successful. You can go by test scores and all that, but we show success by intangibles like 'are they coming to school?' For a lot of these kids, this is the only place they feel safe, and many of these guys would be dropouts if they weren't coming to Crossroads.

"And they have ownership of this place. It's unusual. It seems like, in a regular high school, the top 5 percent have the opportunity to take ownership. With 2,000 kids in school, that's a large number who don't get involved. But our small numbers means 90 percent takes ownership in the school."

Crossroads Alternative School A Gazette reporter spent a day at the Crossroads Learning Center, which is in danger of being relocated. Watch slideshow

She says teachers often stand in for one another.

"Change is hard for these guys, so we try to fill in for each other. We try to provide consistency. They don't have any consistency in their home life, so we try to be as predictable as possible."

Across the room, Amanda Green is reading "Ripley's Believe It or Not." She says she would have attended Senior High, "but I messed up summer school and they told me I'd have to go here."

She talks about the upcoming prom.

"The theme is going to be 'New York, New York.' They'll have a tunnel when you walk into the door of the gym. They're having someone design a background for our pictures to be taken. There will be a bunch of really cool lights and a city backdrop. I'm going to help with the balloons and decorations."

She says she's got a new black dress for prom, but isn't sure if her boyfriend will take her out to dinner.

"I don't know. I think he is."

It's fourth period in Jeff Meide's Digital Academy class. Meide has the day off, and only one student, Christina Hazen, is in class. Meide's substitute, Aleta Heckaman, leads Hazen from the classroom to the computer lab to work on an assignment.

Heckaman is no stranger to Crossroads.

"I sub here often. I really like the school. We need this type of school. I'm a big advocate of it. If these students weren't in here, where would they be?"

Hazen says the Digital Academy has helped her learn about multimedia. She and a partner have created a Web page that uses animation, pictures, sound and video. She spent the period researching television animation.

Heckaman's class numbers are down because fourth period on Thursdays is when the school Alcoholics Anonymous group meets.

Principal Carol Blades is in the hallway. She says about 15 students go to the AA meetings each week.

"About 80 percent are working the program. I'm sure there are a few who are just trying to sneak out of class. They have AA meetings elsewhere away from school hours, but most of these kids don't have cars and can't go unless it's during the school day."

Blades says the Digital Academy, which was transferred to Crossroads from the Career Center last year, will go away next year.

"Next year we'll have Intro to Computers instead. These kids have got to know word processing, spreadsheets, Excel, e-mails. These kids don't have computers at home, and they have to learn how to do what companies require from computers, which is to create a document and assign an attachment. They're required to know this by employers, and our kids are not prepared at all to do this."

Blades addresses the potential sale of the Crossroads property and the resulting move to a new facility, most likely Lincoln Center.

"We just had a faculty meeting yesterday, and what we've got to make kids understand is that a school isn't a building - it's the culture and climate and stuff. We can move that. We have to tell students the program isn't going to end; it's just going to move. It's our job to transfer the positive attitude to wherever they send us."

Travis Hook and Sara Belgarde come in to the front lobby after having a smoke across 14th Avenue in the old Pay 'N Pak lot. Roughly 15 to 20 smokers go there each lunch period, Hook says.

"I go out there in the morning, at lunch and after school. … I tried quitting, I tried the patch, tried the gum - didn't like any of it so I came back to cigarettes. But if I wanted to quit I'd have to get away from other smokers, which is pretty much the whole city."

He used to smoke two packs a day, "but I've slimmed down to one."

Belgarde says her volume is much less.

"A pack lasts 2-1/2 days, if I don't give them away."

Near the front office, Nicole Lopez and Blaine Bond sell pre-orders for the Crossroads yearbook. Lopez says the yearbook staff has been working all year on the project and is barely half-done. She says pre-sales are required because of problems with last year's edition.

"Last year, kids ordered and then didn't pay, so we ended up with a lot of yearbooks."

Down in the lunchroom, Brenton Baker pokes at his lunch.

"I don't know what this is. I really don't know. It's got noodles, chicken; it's some sort of casserole thing."

He's got a large puddle of ranch dressing "to dip my chicken sandwich in" and a carton of chocolate milk.

Nearby, Lacey Frost eats the casserole.

"I really don't know what's in it but I'm not really picky. Other students can complain."

Frost reflected on being a student at Crossroads.

"This really is a good place to go to school. They helped me out a lot. If I need a place to live, they give me a place to live. If I need food to eat or if I really need money, they give me money. If I need it, they take me to a doctor. They're pretty much my only family.

"I started here last year. Before that I was in Missoula, and before that I was at West High and before that I was in Oklahoma."

Frost says she wants to go to college and major in psychology. "I just think learning about other people is interesting, how people work and take action in so many different ways. It's so interesting."

Blades is standing near the gym, talking to another teacher.

"We have 72 kids now, and I think we could go to 100. There were 30 or 40 who enrolled here we couldn't reach. They enrolled and then dropped out.

"If anything, we need an alternative middle school in this district. The wait is too long for too many of these kids. For some it's a little too late. I bet a lot of these kids, their third-grade teacher could have identified them for this school."

She watches as one student dances in the gym.

"Look at him. He doesn't know I'm watching him. He's happy. He feels safe. He ran away from home and dropped out of school and was hanging out with 19-year-old boys. His mother called me and said, 'What can I do?' and I said call the police. They had a talk with those 19-year-olds, and now they don't want anything to do with him.

"You know, he was identified as highly gifted in elementary school? A lot of people wouldn't identify these kids as being the head of the pack, but, in a lot of ways, they are. They were introduced to a lot of adult issues early on, but now they have a lot of wisdom."

Stephanie Hall is teaching her Jobs for Montana Graduates class, in which a student goes the entire process of getting ready for a job.

One of the students is Amalia Blackburn.

"We had to do an assignment about what we would like to do, and I decided I wanted to be a cosmetologist or a bank teller. I just think it would be neat to deal with other people's money."

In the front office, school secretary Cheryl Purington keeps watch on things. She's been here since Crossroads opened in 1998.

"I read an article in The Gazette that they were going to open this school, and I knew that's where I needed to be, so I went to the school district and applied and I've been here ever since."

She said the front office personnel don't handle discipline.

"We just love them, mother them if they get sick because, when they go home, they probably have no one to care for them,"

Students are getting the gym ready for prom. Lon Andersen - with two other students - is putting construction paper on the walls.

"Him, me and another dude, we're going to put up paper, then paint it to look like New York City. We'll paint buildings and a river, a view like it's from Central Park or something. Hopefully we'll get it done in a week."

Down the hall, head custodian Frank "Butch" Kucera is pushing a cart. The district says the Crossroads building should be sold because it needs hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair. Kucera doesn't know about the prices, but the building does need repairs.

"It needs repairs, mostly in the floor. The floor is mainly asbestos tile, so it needs to be abated and replaced. The roof leaks, but is generally in good shape. The heating system still works well, but it's dated. The electricity is inadequate, but it's as good as any other high school - there's plenty of power in the building, but we need more outlets. The plumbing is all galvanized pipe, so, when you turn the water on after its set for the weekend, the water is all red from the rust. There're a lot of holes in the boiler return system.

"So structurally the building is good, but it could use a lot of repairs."

Blades presides over a student government meeting.

One topic is an upcoming fund-raiser, another is cleanliness in the bathrooms.

The next topic: moving Crossroads to a new location. Blades brings up the idea of an all-school reunion before they move out of the building. She also wants to know if students would help with packing after the school year is done.

One student wonders why they're painting on paper in the gym if the building is going to be condemned at the end of the school year. Blades says she'll look into painting directly on the walls. She adds that maybe different classes could paint murals along the hallways before the end of school.

The bell rings, signaling the end of school, and the students scatter.

Blades discusses her criteria for selecting students to attend Crossroads. The main ingredient is an interview with the student.

"I don't know how to say it - they have to be worth a shot."

"We had this boy who came here and was obviously depressed. I told him and his mother he could come here if he went to see a psychologist. They didn't like that, but he did it. He mostly stays alone, very isolated, but, the other day I was walking past the gym, and there he was shooting hoops with some of the other boys. You just never know.

"I know some of the people here say the students just need to be loved, and they do. But they also need to read and do math and be able to get a job. We want these students to graduate, and we're doing what all the research shows will help them.

"I guess I'd say they're a narrow but salvageable population. We don't take criminals or mental problems. These are kids who need help or they'll fall through the cracks. These are kids who wouldn't act out, they would just sit there and be ignored. They have very little self-confidence, and they wouldn't graduate from a regular high school.

"There's more to be done. The kids here are just a drop in the bucket when you talk about the number of kids out on the street."

John Fitzgerald can be reached at 657-1392 or at jfitzgerald@billingsgazette.com.

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