Piggott High ALE a Model for Other Schools
In the back of the classroom, there is a large white-and-chrome tower. In it are several pockets, filled with soil and growing peppers, tomatoes and other garden vegetables under sun lamps. The teacher, Jon Wellman, has secretly added additional water to the hydroponics garden's tank. He wants to see if his students will notice the change when they go to check the garden's vitals. On a desk nearby, an incubator sits temporarily unused. Last spring, students used it while raising quail, but this year the plan is for chickens. Near the front of the room, a 3D printer is producing a nut and bolt from orange plastic, both to demonstrate the function of the printer to the students and to give them a sense of potential projects it could be used for. This is the Inspiration Academy, Piggott High's alternative education program.
The program at PHS is unique, but not alone, and it shares traits with its sibling programs around the state. Arkansas's state law requires each school district to have some form of alternative education program, and the statewide efforts are considered models on the national stage, with other states looking to Arkansas for ideas on how best to help their own at-risk student populations. Under the current guidelines, schools can place up to three percent of its student population grades seven through 12 in alternative education.
The program aims to provide students who would otherwise struggle in a traditional learning environment with the opportunity to complete their high school education and receive their diploma. In addition to scheduling students into school credit structures that meet graduation requirements, the program provides supplemental instruction in the development of social skills and positive behavior patterns, as well as problem solving strategies.
In Piggott, the Inspiration Academy focuses on project-based learning, as well as community service efforts. Jon Wellman and Karen Coomer, who run the program at the high school, also both sit on the state board for Alternative Education. Data that is generated by these student projects, including the effectiveness of these projects in preparing students for the future outside of high school, will be presented at the next state conference. The hope is that other school districts can look to Piggott and develop equally effective programs.
The program also interacts with another program in the district, Jobs for American Graduates, or JAG. JAG is a non-profit program that seeks to develop career skills in at-risk students, ensuring smooth transitions after graduation into either college or work environments. The Inspiration Academy and JAG curriculums are often seen in concert on projects that focus on training students in business skills, and often involve outreach to the local community. This year, the students participated in a project based on popular telivision show “Shark Tank”, sponsored in part by First National Bank. Students created mock business proposals around fictitious products – in this case, painted and decorated pumpkins. They then interviewed with staff at First National as if they were seeking a small business loan. The project required them to produce budgets, business plans, and finally to actually sell their products at the Piggott Farmers' Market.
Coomer and Wellman say that they are immensely grateful to First National for their help in that project, and they also wish to express their gratitude to the all local community businesses that have supported the program in the last 11 years. They are also thankful for the full and unequivocal support they have received from their fellow faculty and staff in Piggott School District, as well as the district administration. When asked what the next step is for the Inspiration Academy, they expressed hope for the creation of a dedicated facility for the program. Several of the projects, such as woodworking, are loud and space-consuming, and not optimized for a classroom environment. Dedicated facilities would allow the program to expand these crafts projects without risking interfering with neighboring classroom's ability to function. There is also hope that a dedicated faciltiy could be used to further expand projects already underway, including perhaps graduating the hydroponics tower to a small hydroponic greenhouse.
The Inspiration Academy's motto, emblazoned on a bulletin board just outside the classroom, is “Moving Mountains, Building Dreams.” As the students advance through the program and ultimately receive an education that, for many of them, would otherwise have been out of reach, opportunities and chances for successful lives beyond high school grow and blossom, not unlike the vegetables in the tower garden.