This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Melanie Bavaria from video
The tall, slender young man walked down from the podium in his cap and gown, the ovation from the audience triggered by the final words of his speech:
“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you couldn’t. ”
And in graduating from Lakeside School in Horsham Township, Ray Willey had done just that.
His mother, beaming, said, “I never thought this day would come. He put me through a lot.”
“It was like a dream come true,” Willey recalled months later, when he was already working at a construction job in Conshohocken.
“I never thought of myself doing that. I felt like it was all worth it.”
What drew Caroline Smith to work with students like those at Lakeside, a private school, probably isn’t that unusual: “I’ve always gravitated to the outsiders, the kids who were different, the underdogs,” she says. “I feel like I’m doing work that makes a difference to somebody who needs someone in their corner.”
But what has kept Smith at Lakeside for 18 years is a bit more complicated.
“It’s the way Lakeside supports their staff,” says Smith, who heads special education services for the Lakeside network.
She recalled an incident at a school where she had worked earlier. Upset about an issue in her classroom, she went to her supervisor and was told, “That’s the way it is in alternative education, and if you can’t take it, get out now.’”
At Lakeside, she says, “I’ve had the same kinds of moments, and my supervisor spent hours with me. She listened to everything I said and asked what she could do.
“She offered to come into my classroom and observe, to problem-solve with me. She challenged me and helped me grow, helped me to think about my own actions, my body language. It left me feeling not only supported, but empowered.”
Now, as a supervisor herself, she says, “One thing I really try not to do is solve problems for people. I try to allow them, with some guidance, to come to their own understanding. I try to be present with them in the moment, to ignore the phones and the pages and my emails."
Melanie Bavaria from video
Many Lakeside students have had brushes with the law, and some are on probation. Electronic ankle monitors are common enough that they don’t bring stares.
Part of principal Pete Dillard’s job is coordinating with the juvenile justice system to keep the student in school, if possible.
“If we have a student who’s doing great at Lakeside and struggling in the community, I’ll try to keep the student in school here and address the outside situation,” Dillard says.
“I’ve had probation officers come to the school. I might have to go to court and speak to the progress the student is making, [especially] if it’s a questionable offense. The probation officers and the judges trust us to meet the students’ needs.”
Although graduations are landmark events at Lakeside, which has a capacity of 150 students, quieter landmark events occur more frequently when students return to their home schools or school districts.
“You always love to have the [former Lakeside] students walk in our graduation and get a Bensalem High School diploma,” says Brian Cohen, director of special services for the Bensalem School District.
“But for some kids, [a school with] 2,000 students just isn’t going to work.”
What does he look for in deciding whether a student can be brought back?
“Discipline, attendance, grades … how often they need counseling,” Cohen says. “We just don’t have that level of counseling here.
“But we don’t want to do it cold turkey.”
Preventing that is one of Mary Wilkinson’s jobs.
As a Bensalem High School counselor supported by Lakeside, she carries a normal counseling load but pays special attention to students returning from alternative schools.
“I’m an as-needed drop-in counselor,” she says.
Returning, she says, is a real challenge logistically for a student who’s been in an alternative school.
“One thing we always talk about is how to make the school ‘smaller,’ perhaps by placement in smaller classes, perhaps just by being there when needed.”
Her office, with its fidgets and posters on self-regulation, could well have been taken straight from Lakeside.
“The students can really open up because they know they’re with a Lakeside person,” she says.
Zavier Bouayad-Ramey, 17, was one of the students who came back from Lakeside.
Wearing a gray hoodie, the slender youth sat at a table at a McDonald’s in Bristol Township to talk about his return to Bensalem High School after a year at Lakeside.
Before that, he had been suspended for threatening a teacher, spent a year in juvenile detention for theft, and lost a big sister whom he revered to a drug overdose. And his probation officer warned him that, if he were arrested again, he’d be tried as an adult.
“I know they’re watching me” at Bensalem, he said. “They don’t want me to make their school look bad. I knew there’d be a lot of pressure on me.
“It’s like I have a one-track mind in here. I don’t worry about what someone else is saying or what someone else is doing.”
He’s been passing his subjects and holding down a part-time job at an Estee Lauder warehouse in Bristol.
And he is grateful for the support he got from his Lakeside School counselor and from his mom, Christina Quesada, who told him that he was “going to graduate whether I wanted to or not.”
The counselor was Heidi Beatty, and “she set my goals to get me back to Bensalem,” Bouayad-Ramey says. ”Heidi kept telling me I could go back.”
Beatty recalls, “It was about setting very clear goals about suspension, classroom behavior, passing everything.
“He needed daily reminders. … It was getting him not to react when he was angry. We held him more accountable. There was some role-playing, talking through different scenarios. It took him a long time to trust us, to buy into what we were telling him. When we proved we cared for him, he took constructive criticism.”
Bouayad-Ramey worked in Lakeside’s greenhouse, passed his courses and learned, among other things, that “there were things you don’t say to a teacher.” (For a more detailed look at Lakeside’s philosophy of discipline, click here.)
And, slowly, Lakeside tightened the disciplinary reins on him to get him ready to return to Bensalem. Without that, he says, “they’d have been throwing me back in blindfolded.”
Christina Quesada is glad they didn’t, that there is more hope than she had ever felt for the young man whose school troubles had started in 4th grade and had shown no signs of disappearing.
“It’s hard to find people who do their jobs with their whole heart,” says Quesada.
“They give them the skills they need to succeed, not just to get by.”
Although he hasn’t settled on a career choice, Ray Willey already has larger goals.
“I want to give back to everyone who gave to me … buy my own house, start a family….
“I feel like a way-better man. I feel like I could bring a son into the world and teach him to grow up.”
Editor’s note: This is the final article in a three-part series about the students and staff at Lakeside School in Horsham and is made possible by funding from the Van Ameringen Foundation and the Reentry Project. To read all the stories and watch the videos, click here.
The Van Ameringen Foundation is supporting two years of Notebook reporting on trauma-informed education. The Notebook is one of 15 news organizations in The Reentry Project, a solutions-oriented project on the issues facing formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The aim is to produce journalism – across the city and across media platforms – that speaks to the challenges of reentry and what can be done about them.