Editor’s note: IowaWatch in a year-long investigation found that although each state is required to identify the bottom-scoring 5 percent of Title I schools every three years, it doesn’t mean these schools are “failing,” as some Iowa policymakers label them. Iowa’s 34 schools are on a “comprehensive” list. IowaWatch is featuring some of them.

Cary Wieland and Henry Shepherd are the Ted Lasso and Coach Beard of Iowa public schools.

They are principal and assistant principal, respectively, at Expo Alternative Learning Center in Waterloo, an alternative high school serving grades six through 12.

In the past seven years, the school’s suspension rate has dropped 90 percent, credit accrual has increased by 125 percent, and the four-year graduation rate is at 55 percent, up from just 17 percent.

“A lot of people like to drive by alternative schools and say, ‘That’s where the bad kids go.’ That’s not where the bad kids go,” Wieland said. “That’s where the kids go just to be able to be on a different pathway to be able to succeed. And our students are succeeding.”

Over the past seven years, Expo has put in place different strategies and interventions for helping kids rather than suspending them.

“I might have a student in front of me that might be verbally abusing me up and down, but that is not me. Seven years ago my staff would want a pound of flesh to say, ‘How long are we gonna suspend this kid out of school?’” he said. “Their perception now is, it’s not about my ego, it’s not about the pound of flesh, it’s about that kid in front of me. They’re verbally abusing me because they’re in crisis. How do I find the supports and services for this kid?”

More than 550 students are enrolled at Expo, but a total of 1,100 to 1,200 attend at some point during the course of a school year. Last year, 155 students graduated, and over the past few years the district has achieved its highest graduation rates in history, thanks to catching students at Expo who likely would have otherwise dropped out, Wieland said.

To understand how alternative schools fit into the overall schools picture, it’s helpful to imagine a pyramid, Wieland said. At the bottom, about 80 percent of all students respond to universal learning and behavioral interventions; another 15 percent or so need some extra type of interventions, such as small groups. Then, 3 to 5 percent need more intensive customized plans for their academics and/or behaviors, and sometimes more one-on-one work with teachers.

“So that little pyramid tip for other schools becomes our full pyramid here at Expo,” he said.

Expo is listed as comprehensive, one of 34 in Iowa. These are the Title I schools that score in the bottom 5 percent in the state based on students’ performance on the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress test, and/or for high schools, have a graduation rate below 67.1 percent.

Expo currently has a score of 24.65 as a comprehensive school; the average score for schools in Iowa is 54.94.

More than 75 percent of Expo’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, higher than the state average of 40.1 percent. Nearly 26 percent are on individualized education programs, also higher than the state average, which is 12.9 percent. More than 58 percent of students are minorities, also higher than the state average of 25.7 percent.

When a student comes to Expo, the school studies their three-year trend data and the supports they need. They also have conversations with students’ families.

“We tell them we’re not just here for your child, but we’re also here for you,” Wieland said.

At the beginning of 2021, the Waterloo School District gave Expo the results of its culture and climate survey, which details the toughest issues and concerns or deficiencies within the building. It came back showing that 96 percent of everyone within the building is invested in the school. Seven years ago, it was at 45 percent.

“It tells us that we have a really great foundation and we’re supporting our students and supporting our staff and that we’re seeing some great things across the board,” he said.

And that improved climate leads to academic achievement.

In February 202, the school was designated a Leader in Me Lighthouse School for outstanding achievement, based on a standard set by FranklinCovey, which deals with Covey’s work around seven habits for highly effective teens.

About 300 schools globally receive Lighthouse Certification, and Expo is the first alternative high school in the world to be awarded that status. It is also just the third high school in the country and first high school in the state of Iowa to be Lighthouse certified.

Then, in March, the Iowa Department of Education honored Expo as a model school for its Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports work during the 2019-2020 school year. PBIS focuses on conditions to support learning, and being named a model school is its highest accreditation.

“It would be rare to receive both of those awards and recognition … in a typical year, but then to receive both of them during a year when we’re dealing with a global pandemic and everything that’s different, I think is a kudos to our whole building,” said Henry Shepherd, assistant principal at Expo.

Behind all the awards and rising positive numbers is a lot of hard work.

About 150 students who previously dropped out of school have come back to earn their diploma at Expo. Wieland said he remembers one student juggling three children of her own, a full-time job, and graduating with her high school diploma.

“Those kids have been out in the world and said, ‘Hey, I need to get my education because out there without having a high school diploma, it’s a dog-eat-dog world,’” Wieland said. “What we’re trying to do is to produce producers of society and not consumers of society. And so some of those kids in that program, your heart goes out to them.”

When kids arrive at Expo, they typically are very deficient on credits. But if those students put in the work, teachers will work just as hard to make sure they graduate, Shepherd said.

“It’s just so overwhelming to some of our students and some of our families that [graduation] can be a reality for their kid,” he said.

If there is a problem, it’s not that Expo is “failing,” as some lawmakers and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds have called Iowa’s 34 schools listed as needing comprehensive support.

“It’s awareness. You look at the 155 students that graduated last year, [who] could’ve actually been pushed out into the community as dropouts. So what is the burden and what are the statistics for those students if they actually drop out of school? I would assume that’s a pipeline of survival, as well as drug addiction, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, the criminal justice system. So how much money has been saved to our communities by providing services and support?” Wieland said.

“When we start looking at some of these political barriers, it hurts the heart. It hurts the soul. Because we see this on the front lines every single day, and we want people to understand that our kids are good.”

Leah McBride Mensching is a freelance reporter for IowaWatch. She has worked as a reporter, editor, photographer and media researcher over the past 15 years, both as an independent journalist and as an editorial manager for WAN-IFRA, the global organization of the world’s press. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

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