This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Ray Willey ducked into a Wawa and called his grandfather to pick him up.
“He was just wondering why I was running and doing all this nonsense and why I couldn’t stay at school,” Willey said. “I told him I had issues with the teachers. He yelled at me a little bit and asked why I couldn’t do better.”
And when he got to his home in Conshohocken, the welcome was less than enthusiastic.
“I was yelling,” his mother, Judy Willey, recalled. “I was p— off. … From 4th through 11th grade, he was in trouble. I was always being called to school. The cops were always at my house.”
It was the start of three frustrating years. He had an unsuccessful stay at an alternative school, finally dropping out when he turned 16. He was “happy and excited” at first because “I felt that school was worthless and pointless.”
With too much time on his hands, “I was being a knucklehead … stealing, fighting … selling [drugs].” He had a short stay in a juvenile detention facility, but also made unsuccessful attempts to find work and realized that, without a diploma, there might not be any. And friends of his were going to jail.
An argument with his girlfriend was the turning point:
“She felt like I didn’t have the guts to go back to school.”
A warmup for the brain
The choreography that starts the day at Lakeside School in Horsham Township, Montgomery County, is quite different from that of a conventional school.
Buses from throughout the area — some from Lakeside, some from districts that provide the transportation — are lined up. One by one, they discharge their passengers through a welcoming gantlet of principal Pete Dillard, educational supervisor Jen Fauske, and facility dog Boomerang and his handler, Ken Van Horn. (To see how the dogs play a role at the school, click here.)
Fauske checks off the students on her list, and the humans greet each by name. “Hey, Austin. Hi, Logan. …”
Once inside, the students scatter for a variety of non-academic activities — games, puzzles, pool, basketball. The theory about these activities’ benefits is similar to that of stretching before doing vigorous exercise.
Dillard calls them “brain-regulating activities.”
“The idea is to get the brain in a good state of mind,” he says. “To operate at their best, they have to be in a calm state. It’s like a warmup for the brain. And you don’t know what might have happened to them at home [that morning].”
Michael Paone of Norristown furiously attacks a punching bag, as physical education teacher David Sheaffer looks on. The punching allows Michael to expel some of his frustration rather than act out in the classroom.
Sasha Shallies, 17, a senior from Ambler, has the opportunity to relate to a supportive adult as she does a jigsaw puzzle with counselor Gwyn Robinson. She also gets a pep talk to help her start the day.
Dylan Pontaski, 16, an 11th grader from Norristown, bends himself into a pretzel position to make a difficult pool shot. He says he enjoys the pre-class period because “it gives me time to wake up.”
Inside the classroom
Other than the small size, there are few differences between what one might see in a classroom at Lakeside, a private school, and a regular public school classroom.
But those differences are significant.
Some of the students sit on flexible rocking seats or even beanbags. Some play with “fidgets,” small toy-like objects that allow them to work out stress without losing focus. And there are frequent “brain breaks,” exercises in place that serve the same purpose.
Cait-Lynn Lyle of Abington lounged in a beanbag chair for an English class team-taught by English teacher Tina Lewis and special education teacher Samantha Luciano.
This teaching configuration is common at Lakeside, largely because so many of the students — about 80 percent — are classified as special ed.
“I hated it here at first,” Lyle, 18, recalled. “I just thought it was some sort of weird school.”
But she had never had positive experiences at any school. And with a “really bad defiance disorder,” a house arrest for truancy, probation for theft, and a short stay in a juvenile facility with “beds like gym mats,” she soon came to see Lakeside as her best option.
“In a way, it helps, because [the students] have people they can relate to. It’s finding kids who also didn’t fit in [elsewhere]. They’re not the outcasts. I’ll meet people who had the same probation officer as me.”
Where Lyle felt a lack of attention at Abington High School, she said, “here it’s personalized for you.”
This is also a major plus for Logan Turner, who was sent to Lakeside by the Spring-Ford District.
“It’s the smaller classrooms, and they’re more hands-on about it,” he said. “Other schools didn’t care how my weekend was. Here I can’t just sit down at a desk all day long and not say anything to anybody.”
Melanie Bavaria from video
Turner, expelled from public school for reasons including a fight with a teacher, says Lakeside has “helped me to calm down instead of acting out of instinct, which is one of the worst things you can do.”
And if he does graduate in June, he will be accomplishing something his two brothers didn’t, although one got his GED in prison.
After lunch, Turner headed for the greenhouse, one of Lakeside’s unusual features.
Students learn horticulture, do all the campus planting and landscaping, and grow and prepare plants for sale. The last two years, Lakeside has entered exhibits in the Philadelphia Flower Show and won second place in its division. The school has been asked to come back this year as well.
“I try to give them a business environment,” says Jon Klinger, who heads the horticulture program in his 22d year at Lakeside. “I teach them good jobs skills … eye contact, speaking up.”
Ray Willey was one of his star pupils, Klinger said. “He was everything I was looking for in a student. … He really grew up in his two years here.”
At the end of the school day, after the students have headed home by bus, a small group of staff members (teachers, counselors and behavior managers) gathers for a recap of the day.
It’s a chance to compare notes on which students are struggling, how, and perhaps why. And possibly to head off problems before they escalate.
On this day, the discussion started with a female student who was being teased.
“Be mindful of what the guys are saying about what she’s wearing,” said Jen Fauske.
Special education and English teacher Kevin Woolston and behavior manager Krysta Geissinger talked about a student with a bad habit of throwing doors open, in one case coming close to hitting a fellow student.
There was an incident on a bus that morning, involving a group of students who are regularly disruptive in the dining hall at lunchtime.
And one of the parents failed to show up at a scheduled meeting.
In another daily wrap-up meeting nearby, the staff is alerted to the fact that a student just lost a close relative.
There were no major incidents shared, as is often the case. But trouble may have been headed off.
Geissinger, who has been at Lakeside since 2005 and in her present job for nine years, says it isn’t a place to come for instant or dramatic results.
“These kids have so many issues,” she says. “It’s the little victories.”
This three-part series is made possible by funding from the Van Ameringen Foundation and the Reentry Project.