Carol Weiss Rubel, M.S.
Working with at-risk teens in Scranton, one of the few urban districts in Pennsylvania, has turned into my life’s work – even though I once believed I would be teaching Chaucer and Keats to students starving for my insight! My first step into the world of alternative education came about as the direct result of a reduction in staffing of the district... and the intervention of a young superintendent who saw something in me I did not yet know existed. Over twenty-five years ago, the Scranton School District recognized that intervention in the lives of students we thought would not be successful (the “at-risk” buzz words had yet to be integrated into the common lexicon) might – just might – help them refocus priorities and reframe their future.
With little more than the unwavering support of the superintendent, Dr. Peter Flynn, I was offered the chance to develop a program for students in grades 6 through 8. The energetic enthusiasm of youth motivated me, and I crafted a small program that integrated the community as a resource (via field trips and guest speakers) while concentrating on the essential skills of reading and mathematics. Drawing upon a neighboring university’s graduate school of social work, I invited master’s level students to work in my classroom as a kind of practicum. The concept worked... and is still in use in the district today. Nonetheless, I found that six years in the isolation of an environment relatively unknown to other educators was enough for me... and I transferred into the comfortable environment of teaching senior high school English.
I stayed in my senior high school classroom for the next decade. Then the opportunity to develop a program for at-risk high school students surfaced, and, once again, the possibility of working with those students came my way.
I did not want to do it again. I did not want to jump headfirst back into the pool of uninvolved parents, troubled kids, juvenile probation officers and colleagues who viewed attempts at alternative education as indictments against the traditional system rather than additional tools to reach a different kind of kid.
I did not want to do it... until had a conversation with the man who had encouraged me the first time... nearly twenty years earlier. Dr. Flynn had moved on and was serving as superintendent far away from Scranton. However, in a telephone conversation we had, he asked me, “How long can you keep running from these kids? Have you noticed that no matter where you think you can be far from them”... they always manage to find you? Why don’t you just face it: this is meant to be what you do!“
That conversation helped me realize that the challenge of helping my district respond appropriately to the fragile adolescents in our midst was, indeed, something I had to do. Years of choosing to stay in the classroom... years of believing that no work was more valuable than actively teaching... had kept me away from administration and solidly grounded in the classroom. I realized that my wealth of experience as a hands-on teacher could be the framework for Scranton’s newest foray into alternative education.
This second effort to create an alternative program found me as strongly supported by the current superintendent, his assistant and the supervisor of curriculum, as had my first experience. I was off and running!
Yellowwood was born from a strong belief that working with adolescents needs to concentrate on a holistic approach that is tough (when necessary) as well as elastic. The students referred to Yellowwood by their home school principals were as varied as could be... yet each carried some mark of traditional school failure. Truancy, chemical addiction, virtual homelessness, lack of synchronicity between age and grade placement were all reasons why one of the two high school principals might refer a student to Yellowwood.
Through the years that Yellowwood has existed, we have refined the selection process to a multi-leveled one in which students must prove that the choice to change their life position is theirs... not a parent’s or guardian’s, By involving current Yellowwood students in the interview experience as well as making parents and prospective students part of the process, the chances rise that the twenty-five students invited to become part of ”the wood“ each year have the greatest chance to succeed.
Once students are accepted into Yellowwood, their first assignment is to attend – with a parent or other significant adult – the graduation ceremony of the present class. I believe that the best motivation for those beginning a journey is to actually witness the successful completion of someone who has already walked the path. In fact, I believe this so strongly that failure to attend the graduation is grounds for a newly admitted student to be denied admission! When prospective students actually see the success of others once labeled with the same adjectives (”failure;’ “loser,” etc.) that they now hear used to describe them... marvelous things happen! That graduation evening is – although the students are unaware of it – the beginning of a transformational change that will happen to them if they complete the Yellowwood program. Yellowwood’s greatest achievement is the ability to inculcate a sense of personal responsibility and personal power into young people who have often come from – and often embrace – a “victim mentality.”
Prior to becoming a Yellowwood student, many kids find security in excusing their lack of success as something that they have no control over. By the time they have spent one or two years in Yellowwood, however, everyone understands the difference between an excuse and an explanation! Additionally, the concept of a “spiral of personal responsibility” for everything in life... the notion that all choices ultimately return to the one making them... is crystal clear.
How does this transformational change happen? It happens because of a powerful interaction between community partners who serve as host sites for students and the teens themselves. Every Yellowwood student is assigned to a non-profit agency in Scranton where he or she spends four days each week in an active and legitimate service-learning experience. No money is exchanged between the District and the host sites; the common belief that it is the responsibility of community to educate its children is the underlying philosophy that makes Yellowwood work. Whether a student is assigned to the American Red Cross, a local hospital, Meals on Wheels, or a local museum, each receiving site spends time and invests concern into the young person assigned there. As the academic year progresses, students find that their skill set, as well as the “soft skills” so highly valued by business, grow at an astonishing rate. Partnering sites find that the student who cut school last year is the team member who comes in on a snow day because there is a serious project that needs to be completed. Yes, that really has happened!
The fifth day of a student’s week is spent with me in a more formal academic setting. That day focuses on critical thinking, reading, basic math, and communication – both oral and written. We also integrate a trained and certified drug and alcohol counselor into those days, thereby strengthening the Yellowwood philosophy that all of life is a series of choices.
Yellowwood is not the only answer for students struggling in our high schools. Indeed, it is not the best answer for many students. But it is a powerfully transforming experience for some students. Yellow wood has changed lives: Laura now works as a nurse’s aide and supports her child rather than living on welfare; Jason is serving in the armed forces as a paratrooper; Felicia is entering her junior year in college with a major in education; Frank works second shift at a distribution warehouse miles from home and gets there on time – all the time... the list goes on and on. The success of this school comes from the combined support of the business community, the non-profit sector (which, incidentally, donates classroom space for us to use so that we are never “forced” back into a traditional school building), the sponsoring school district... and the children themselves. They, more than anyone, deserve the acknowledgment of choosing to transform their lives; Yellowwood is only the vehicle through which they have accomplished this.
Truly, as our name is meant to remind everyone,
“two roads diverged in a yellow wood... and I, I took the one less traveled
by/And that has made all the difference.” (Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken.)