0314 Phoenix Academy

0314 Phoenix Academy

Employability environment a powerful motivator at Clark County school

Employability environment a powerful motivator at Clark County school

By Jennifer Wohlleb
Staff Writer

The same qualities that make someone a good employee overlap with those that make a good student. To help their kids be successful at both, Clark County Schools’ Phoenix Academy puts an hourly focus on its students’ employability.

“All of our kids are evaluated on their employability each class period of each day, starting when they arrive at breakfast – they’re evaluated on if they are on time, if they’re employably dressed,” said Dustin Howard, principal of the alternative program.

PHOTO: Phoenix Academy student Austin Ousley, makes the pitch for his promotion to the next level to, from right, Principal Dustin Howard, instructional assistant Tammy Calloway, and counselors/social workers  Jason McNiel and Anita Bartley. Each promotion meeting is treated like a job interview, in keeping with the academy’s focus on employability.

Academy officials and students worked with area employers and human resource directors to develop the employability evaluation system.

“We had them come in and talk about what they were looking for in employability and that was a weeklong Employability Week,” Howard said. “And then our kids developed what our five employability standards would be, because I wanted it to be student-driven and not just a dictatorship handed from the top down.”

Students are rated on these five criteria:

• Respectful communication with all in the Phoenix community
• Follows all work place procedures
• Uses self-control when stressed
• Completes all duties assigned
• Appropriate use of time, including tech use

“Each period, the teaching staff evaluates if they earn their employability points in each area,” Howard said. “You can’t lose points; it’s only a positive thing because you are trying to earn a certain employability score for the day, depending on what level you are on. Our sheets go with kids from class to class and then at the end of the day, they chart their employability score in their notebook and then they have to take the sheet home and get it signed and returned. And in returning it, that’s part of their homework; they get points for that or not the next morning.”

The Phoenix Academy, which began in 2012, is geared toward students who struggle in a more traditional education environment. It is a 90-day program that focuses on getting students back in a traditional classroom. Howard credits Fayette County’s Learning Center at Linlee for serving as inspiration for their program.

“They have a similar philosophy as far as looking at employability and so we took that and did some different things with it, expanded it a little bit and made it fit our program,” he said. “Ron Chi, the principal, has been a great partner.”

Students must be promoted through the four levels of the program before graduating, and each of those promotions involves an interview with key school personnel, much like a job interview. Each promotion meeting starts with a variation of the same basic question: Why do you think you should be promoted?

Students have to sell themselves and explain how they met their goals and followed the employability criteria, which is teaching them the soft skills employers cite as being absent in the emerging  workforce.

“You’ve got to stay on task, you’ve got to be a good role model, self control, you have to do a lot of things. You have to watch your attitude,” said Phoenix student Alex, as he gave a tour of the school.

“Everybody at (George Rogers Clark) high school is like, ‘Phoenix Academy is for the bad kids.’ But it’s really not; it’s for the kids who really can’t work in a big group of students. So we come down here and you have what, eight in a class? It’s a whole lot easier on the students and the teachers. It’s more one-on-one time.”

School counselor Jason McNiel said the staff is trying to make students see the connection between their performance in school and their performance at a future job and earning a paycheck.

“Whether it’s Dollar General or Microsoft, if they perform well and they’re employable, then they will get paid,” he said. “I think there’s a direct connection from how they behave at school translating to how they behave in dealing with the work place.”
School counselor Anita Bartley said the school gives students a different reason to behave and work hard.

“It’s a different slant on changing behaviors, simply because when you are addressing it, being employable is not the same as saying, ‘You need to change behavior because you can be successful at school,’” she said.

“It’s giving them a glance at what they should do in the future to be successful, and it takes on a different meaning for them.”

Howard said students have embraced the program “because now it’s not, ‘You’re getting onto me because you don’t like me,’ or whatever; it has completely taken the onus off our staff.

“I always ask, ‘Who wants to make money?’ And of course they are all, like, ‘Me!’ Well, this is a way to ensure that you don’t get fired and you are able to make money and support your family,” he said. “I always tell them, we don’t fire anywhere here. Every day is a new day, but once we get you through, these are the five things you have to do to stay employed. The kids connect to it; it’s not some irrelevant thing we ask them to do.”

Culture of higher expectations brings results

Clark County school board member Judy Hicks said one indicator to her of the Phoenix Academy’s success is its attendance rate.

“The school board receives monthly attendance reports from each school, and when we track comparative rates of attendance for the Phoenix Academy from year to year, it is just incredible over the past year or so how attendance has increased,” she said. “Each month we have banners that go to the school with the best attendance or the highest improvement rate, and the Phoenix Academy’s rate of improvement is just very, very stellar.

“A great deal of it is just a difference in attitude, accountability and expectations that have developed with our principal, Dustin Howard, and with the encouragement of the community, the board and administration.”

Hicks said the school has changed greatly from two years ago, when it was known as the Clark County Alternative School.

“One  of the first things (Howard) did when he came on board was engage a group of student representatives to develop their dress code, rules and regulations that they would operate by, and then the naming of the facility,” she said. “They did not like Clark County Alternative School. He had a committee, and he came to the board with a recommendation and it came from the students who had served on the committee, and, of course, we jumped right on it.”

She said the school’s culture of expectations, accountability and support has changed.

“Sometimes the stigma of alternative programs is a negative to start with, so the kids in the past have fallen into the lower expectation realm,” she said. “But over the past few years that has changed so dramatically. These students learn differently and are more comfortable in a different setting and the Phoenix Academy has just provided a different outlook for so many students who are in that setting. We have expectations that the students when they finish their program there will be as employable as a student who finishes their program at the high school.”

View text-based website