As the school year draws to a close, a new experience is just beginning for 13 La Follette High School students.

On Thursday, the start of fourth quarter, the Madison Metropolitan School District opened a “micro school” at the Life Center on Madison’s southeast side. The alternative school site was developed for a small number of students from La Follette who’ve had behavioral challenges this year.

District administrators announced the alternative site in late February following a series of high-profile incidents at La Follette during the second and third quarters of the school year. La Follette parents organized a listening session with MMSD superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and voiced their concerns at Madison School Board meetings.

Alex Fralin, MMSD’s secondary schools chief, said the energy was high following a parent orientation for incoming micro school students on Tuesday.

“Establish(ing) a deep relationship to both the students and their families to take a risk with us was the goal that we set out with Tuesday night, and I think we achieved it,” Fralin said.

Fralin said 13 students — ninth, 10th and 11th grade boys from La Follette — showed up for classes on Thursday. Fralin said two more students may decide to transition to the micro school in the coming days.

The district faced pushback from some board members about the location of the alternative school. Although the Life Center is a church, students use an entrance separate from the sanctuary leading to the building’s youth center. The center has two classrooms, a cafeteria, gymnasium and recording studio. Classes are not held in the sanctuary and there is no religious iconography in the spaces students occupy.

The Life Center’s senior pastor, Adam Clausen, is also a member of Cheatham’s Human Relations Advisory Committee. Another partner in the micro school effort is Selfless Ambition, a nonprofit that fosters relationships between churches and community organizations. Selfless Ambition’s chief executive officer, Henry Sanders, said the organization will donate supplies and other resources to the micro school.

Ricardo Jara, a graduate student from Harvard University who is serving as Cheatham’s special assistant for equity and innovation this school year, said students can expect an engaging, project-based curriculum.

“We have a humanities-based class that (is a) mixture of English and social studies where kids are going to be focusing on two major projects — one focusing on their own identity and the second (is) a school design project,” Jara said. “(Another course) is Hip-Hop Architecture 101…(focusing) on architecture, engineering and the intersection between (those subjects) and hip-hop.”

Michael Ford, director of design at BrandNu Design and best-known as the hip-hop architect (his hip-hop architecture curriculum was recently featured on The Today Show), will lead the class.

Jara said students also expressed a desire for more relevant coursework in terms of life after high school, so there will be space in their schedule to cover those topics.

The micro school’s principal is Paris Echols, who has served as assistant principal at La Follette since 2015. The faculty also includes Rudy Bankston — a restorative justice coach for MMSD, and Leigh Vierstra — a veteran U.S. history teacher at East. The faculty also includes a social worker and a special-education case worker.

The Cap Times caught up with Bankston on Wednesday at the Life Center while he was setting up his classroom. Bankston carried boxes of texts for students donated by Frugal Muse, a local bookstore. Bankston said he hopes students leave the space at the end of the school year with a sense of agency over themselves and their educational experiences.

“I always tell people, ‘Make these schools teach you... that’s why they are there,’” Bankston said.

“(I want them to have) a sense of space where they know that they belong and they know that it can work for their good," he said. "I want them to have a stronger sense of identity and confidence in whatever that identity is.”

The micro school is a pilot, but may be expanded next school year. Some of the students may elect to return to La Follette in the fall. If that happens, Jara said he wants to make sure that students have the supports they need to be successful.

“We really want to make sure that students feel like they're making the best decision at the end of the experience," he said. "We want them to be in a place where they can personally and academically thrive.

“If they want to go back to La Follette, we want them to return with a better sense of self, what they want for their future, and what they think they can do to alter and transform the face of their community.”

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