Help on the way: For students with needs, their future is on the Horizons
MOHAWK — The creation of Horizons Alternative School in 2005 was the result of a group of educators concerned about the number of students in the Calumet-Laurium-Keweenaw (CLK) Schools who were either struggling or who had given up and simply left school. It became clear, the CLK website states, that some kind of program needed to be set up to help address the unique needs of this population of students.
The faculty, staff, and students function much as a family does; the atmosphere in the school’s program is oriented toward fostering acceptance, a sense of belonging, and responsibility for ourselves and others. It is in this environment that students in grades 9-12 are invited to take advantage of, the opportunity for a second chance to learn, earn credit, and graduate.
US News reports that of the 64 students enrolled, the total minority enrollment is 5%, and 86% of students are economically disadvantaged. Ninety-five percent of the student enrollment is white, while 3% are two or more races comprise 3%, and 2% are Hispanic.
To two local residents, Barbara and Paul Horton, these students are not statistics; they are young, disadvantaged human beings with unlimited potential and worth community investment. The couple’s investment has been far more than monetary.
The story, said Principal Joel Asiala, began about two years ago, when the Hortons first became involved with the school, through Darryl Pierce. Pierce is a former superintendent of the CLK Schools, having retired at the end of December 2017. Pierce offered the Hortons a tour of the facility, and the couple asked what they could do to improve the school. Odd as it may sound, showers and a laundry room were mentioned. After conducting some initial research, the Hortons decided they would finance a private shower, restroom and laundry to be installed in the school.
“Our kids found about it,” said Asiala, “and they just absolutely loved it.”
Paul and Barb came back to the school, he added, and chatted with the students, forming a bond and a relationship. The students, said Asiala, look up to them, and talk with them.
“In the process, Paul and Barb then decided,” Asiala said, “wouldn’t it be nice if your kids had access to a scholarship? We’ve never had a scholarship program here.”
Further discussion led to the Hortons starting a $5,000 scholarship program, but there were two applicants for the scholarship. The Hortons then provided two scholarships last year. While the Hortons then decided the laundry room, shower, and two scholarships were enough of an investment, they first said they had to pay for the school to have a sign. Barb then said, she wanted to make sure the school grounds had some trees. Then she said the students and the school need a pavilion. That led to further landscaping in the form of rocks being placed around the school, to make “the school look more like a school.”
The work was done over the summer, said Asiala, and when the students returned in September, they were in awe. A student told him how impressed he was and said the improvements made him feel a part of a school. Asiala said he asked the student what is different. He answered:
“We have a pavilion, we can go outside, we have an actual sign now, not the one that was falling down; the grounds look really good; and I can do my laundry now.”
All of these improvements, said Asiala, wrap around the Student First approach, and the Hortons “made a connection with these kids, and really did some amazing stuff.”
Pierce said a similar facility to Horizons located in New Jersey had installed a laundry facility, and during an interview with that school’s principal, he said the absentee rate dropped from near 50% to approximately 10%.
Asiala said that just from the installation of a laundry facility, the New Jersey school’s attendance jumped from 75 to 98 percent attendance rates.
Horizons has seen similar results, said Asiala.
“We’ve gone from 76%,” he said, “to last year, when we went to 84%, and this year, before COVID hit, we were at 86%. We’ve jumped it up 11% in just two years. And to jump that high is a significant jump; I mean, that is a big jump.”
If a school’s attendance rate increases by 2 to 3 percent, he said, that is impressive.
“But with all this new stuff,” said Asiala, “it’s jumped up over 11%. That’s absolutely amazing.”
Asiala said that when the Hortons, Pierce, and he began discussing options, they began looking at data, including stress levels, and they were surprised to discover that stress levels had dropped significantly.
“When we first started collecting data on stress levels two or two and a half years ago, before the Hortons became involved,” he said, “the stress levels were between 4 and 4.2 on average for 70 kids. Now, we are at between 2.6 to 2.7. That was before the pandemic. Right now, even with the pandemic, we’re still at between 3.3 and 3.4.”
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles regarding the relationship between Horizons Alternative School, it staff, donors, and the students who are determined to overcome all odds.