Meet Krista Handel, a junior who is one of three girls spending their afternoons building a house in the Career Center’s construction class.
Before Handel was a home builder, she was a freshman struggling to get started in high school. Her school counselor recommended Transitions, a half-day program of self-paced, teacher-directed study located in Lincoln Education Center.
“If it weren’t for Transitions, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Handel said recently. She’s earning A’s and B’s and looking at her college options.
Lily Anderson is in her third semester at Transitions. In the afternoon, she’s at Skyview in culinary essentials and choir.
“My freshman year, first semester, I did not do very well,” Anderson said in a break between morning Transitions classes. “When I got here, I got A’s and B’s. You go at your own pace. I’m fast with English, I struggle with science.”
And she’s on track to graduate with her class. Like other Transitions students, Anderson has to arrange transportation to Lincoln Center. Her dad drives her in the morning, and she takes the MET bus back to the Heights at midday.
Asjah Akerstrom is a senior planning her life after graduation, an accomplishment she doubted she would see until she started working in Transitions. This program provides more one-to-one instruction and smaller classes than in her home high school. Students work at their own pace and don’t have to go through material they already know. They are tested and move on as they learn each unit.
Becoming a father motivated Nick Frandsen to return to school after dropping out. Transitions is giving him the chance to use his computer skills to complete his high school education. He will also need to take night and summer classes. In addition to academic courses at Transitions, Frandsen is taking a welding class at the Career Center. He plans to join to join the U.S. military reserves.
“If you come here, you get out of it what you put into it,” Frandsen said. “They will help you, but you have to be willing to try.”
Transitions is a voluntary program. Assistant principals from Senior, West and Skyview recommend students, and Transitions counselor Mike Caskey meets with them and their parents to explain the program and ask if they want to participate. Rarely is the opportunity declined.
“Parents and students are aware that coming here is a privilege,” Caskey told a visitor to his office that overlooks the fourth-floor Transitions classroom. Up to 22 students work individually at flat-screen computers. Teacher Nancy Heald helps each student who has a question. The classroom is quiet. Nobody is doodling or snoozing. Every student is engaged in studying English.
Caskey and the program’s three teachers squeeze a few more students into the classes, because not everyone has to work on a computer all the time. Writing also is a component of Transitions. And not everyone is in class every day.
However, one of Transitions’ biggest selling points in attendance improvement.
“We have students who never ever went to their home high schools who come here and seldom miss,” Caskey said. “Others still have absence issues.”
Most students like Transitions, but those who don’t are transitioned out because there’s always a waiting list.
Transitions is the brain child of Woodrow Jensen, SD2’s director of adult education. The program is based on the adult ed model and even borrowed some of its technology from adult ed. Jensen, Caskey and Heald all agree that doubling the capacity of Transitions would be good for Billings students.
Many of the students here are trying to deal with huge life problems — in addition to high school. Some are homeless, some are pregnant and attending Young Families the other half of the day. Some have depression or other serious mental illnesses. Some are dealing with the death of a parent or dysfunctional families.
Many Transitions students do well at Career Center classes, but not in the main high schools. For some, the high schools with nearly 2,000 students are too big, causing severe anxiety. Whatever the reasons that they weren’t doing well, most thrive in Transitions.
The program started in the 2008-2009 school year, serving 28 students the first semester and 44 the second semester. All were at risk of dropping out. The overwhelming majority finished the semester and returned to their home school, a few completed GEDs.
Those statistics have held steady in the years since. Last semester, 34 of 44 students earned at least a semester’s credit in English. Forty-eight students were in the program last week.
Most are freshmen and sophomores. Many of them transition to the Career Center as juniors rather than going back to the larger high schools full time.
“This is the way teaching should be,” said Heald, who has been teaching English for 38 years. “The teacher is the coach and facilitator. It’s self-paced. I can help a kid. I have time to teach.”
Moving from a small, rural school with 15 students in a class, to classes double that size in Billings was tough for Keilei Kohlman. She found success and self confidence at Transitions.
“I have faith in myself,” said Kohlman, who wants to be an elementary teacher.
After “failing all the way,” at his home high school, Cole Braaten is “passing everything” at Transitions where passing requires a grade of 80 percent or higher.
He likes: the quiet environment, working at his own pace, no nagging and that there’s always a teacher to help him.
Transitions provides lessons for Billings Public Schools leaders planning next year’s budget. The Transitions model also is instructive for participants in Graduation Matters Billings, a new community effort to prevent dropouts.
How can the success of this program be shared with more students?
How can smaller learning communities and quieter learning environments be created within the walls of West, Skyview and Senior?
How can the schools do a better job of identifying struggling students and getting them effective help before they fail?
What would it take to open up the Career Center to sophomores and freshmen?
What would it take to create an alternative high school using the successful practices of Transitions?
The school district has limited funds, and Transitions costs more than larger classes at the bigger schools. But when a student drops out, the district loses state funding. The bigger loss from dropouts is farther down the road: a lifetime of lower earnings than high school graduates and a higher risk of winding up jobless, on public assistance or in prison.
Dropout prevention must address many factors that cause students to leave school. Fortunately, in Billings, there is a model that has been working. It’s time to figure out how a program that’s good for 48 students can help more.