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A lack of credits. Behavior issues. No high school diploma in sight. Students across Elbert County and beyond apply to Frontier High School to obtain the future that eluded them in a traditional school.
When students face difficulties in public schools around Elbert County, Frontier High School steps in. The alternative school provides kids with a means to graduation, when they often never thought that was possible.
Established in 1995, Frontier students bounced around various buildings until settling in at Elizabeth’s Red Brick Schoolhouse in 2000. The original part of the building, built in 1920, stands strong to serve the needs of the 60 student at the school.
The focus on experiential learning and creating modified curriculums has earned the high school a top five ranking for alternative schools across the state for years. One of the many activities students do is an annual ropes course at the beginning of the year.
“A few years back we had a kiddo who had never been, and was new to us at that time,” said Principal Rob McCullen. “You can tell she was terrified. You could tell she was just about to freeze.”
The student, who had enrolled a week earlier to Frontier because of severe anxiety issues, stood motionless 50 feet off the ground, clutching the zipline.
“Almost 100 percent of my kids came and started cheering her on,” McCullen said. “That to me exemplified a lot of what we do with the Frontier family.”
She whizzed down to the ground and the student body, most of whom barely knew her, crowded around her.
McCullen, a former history teacher and principal for seven years at Elizabeth Middle School, took up his current post in 2012. His goal is to see his students realize their own potential.
“We live in a tough world these days, much tougher than when I was growing up,” he said. “What I like most is when they really start to believe in themselves; you see them kind of blossom.”
He credits much of that growth to the teaching staff.
“I couldn’t ask for a better team because of their willingness and caring for our kids. They recognize their challenges, and figure out what that students needs to get them where they need them academically,” he said.
The teachers create lesson plans, and often teach side-by-side when the lesson lends itself. Students just finished a history/STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) fusion lesson where they designed model spears from the 1500s and then compared the Chinese versus English models.
“By involving more teachers in a class, we are able to demonstrate and emphasize the concept that a subject does not end at the classroom door,” said social studies teacher Adam Payton. “Classes such as Weapons and Armor teach the students to link growth in science with historical developments and advancements in a new way.”
Payton also acknowledges that some students may not respond well to certain subjects, but when combined in the form of experiments or demonstrations, the lesson clicks.
Teachers also volunteer to chaperone field trips to places like Carlsbad Caverns and Washington, D.C. Over spring break this year they will set out to Great Sand Dunes National Park to learn about the history and geology while building relationships with each other and their teachers.
“At Frontier High School, our experiential education trips are key to building those relationships that transfer back into the classroom,” said math teacher Kelly Riggle. “When you have that positive relationship with a student, they are more willing to work for you, even when it is a subject they struggle in.”
At graduation, every student is tasked with giving a speech, some speak for four minutes, while others walk through four pages, sharing the struggles they pulled through to find themselves standing behind the lectern at the ceremony.
“You have to understand, the uniqueness and struggles they had at other schools is what makes our kids at Frontier so special,” McMullen said. “I don’t know if I could’ve handled it at 14 or 15 years old.”
Many students enroll without any thought of earning a diploma, yet after their senior year enter four-year universities, community colleges, trade schools, or the military, among many other paths that lead to their passions.
“They rise to the occasion,” McMullen said. “(The students) thought from a young age they’d never graduate high school, and they credit the teachers for being there for them and understanding them.”
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