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Closure Of Metro-Meridian Alternative School Leaves Students And Teachers Without Answers

Abigail Wilson
Jade Strachn, a soon-to-be senior, sits outside of Metro-Meridian Alternative High School, which will merge into Metro-Boulevard in the upcoming school year.

Last week, the Board of Education for Wichita Public Schools voted to consolidate the district’s two Metro schools to one location. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson reports that many unanswered questions surround the decision.

Last Friday was the final day of school before summer break for students at Metro-Meridian Alternative High School. But it was also the last day the building will be a school at all.

Jade Strachn just finished her junior year there. Sitting outside the school's front door on a bench with a grocery bag of chocolate to give to her teachers, she says the staff and students here are like a family.

“A lot of us here are just very disappointed that they could do this to us, and our family," Jade says. "You can’t just break up a family like that."

Jade says this year at Meridian was her best school year ever. Her freshman and sophomore years at a larger, more traditional high school were a different story.

Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
The exterior of Metro-Meridian.

“I was getting called names just that were inappropriate, and I got really depressed about it," she says. "I mean, there was not times that I would think about suicide or anything but, you know, every once in a while that just crosses everybody’s mind."

Jade says she was constantly distracted and went out of her way to avoid school.

“It caused me to get into a lot of trouble. Not because of the people around me, but just because I knew if I got in trouble, I wouldn’t have to be at school," she says. "But, I mean, now I love going to school now that I found Metro."

Jade Strachn speaks against the closure of Metro-Meridian at a meeting of the Wichita Public Schools Board of Education.

She says that she’s finally gotten comfortable and confident in her environment. But come August, all of that will change: Metro-Meridian will be closed, and all of its students will have to go to Metro-Boulevard, a different alternative high school on the other side of town 7 miles away. The district currently doesn’t provide transportation for students at the alternative schools, but some students are given a city bus pass.

“My family only has one car, so, I mean, going that extra distance will be a little bit harder," Jade says. "If I ever did have to walk or something, I don’t think I would make it. That’s too far for me to walk.”

Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
Joanna Farmer, center, sits beneath a sign at Metro-Meridian. She has taught science there for 11 years, but doesn't know where or what she will teach next year when the school closes.

Joanna Farmer was Jade’s science teacher at Metro-Meridian. The walls of her classroom are lined with fish tanks and habitats for lizards, snakes, finches and a few spotted guinea pigs. She has concerns similar to Jade’s about the coming school year.

“I really hope they find a way to have transportation for the kids," Farmer says. "And I hope they keep in mind too that just giving them a city bus pass isn’t always the best plan because we have kids that it may take two-and-half hours to get to school by the buses they have to take to get here.”

Farmer says she’s also concerned about the district's ability to provide one of the fundamental pieces of alternative education, because the classes will be larger at Metro-Boulevard.

We've been pushing and pushing and pulling and going by their houses and picking them up and getting them here.

“I worry about some of our kids having the drive and the determination to complete those classes when we’ve been pushing and pushing and pulling and going by their houses and picking them up and getting them here. And we worry that if the teachers over there have 40 to 60 kids in a class, they won’t be able to take that time, that personal time to get them to school or keep them motivated," Farmer says.

Ray Farag has taught social studies at Metro-Boulevard for the past decade. He says alternative education is structured to fit the needs of students.

“Many times I talk to the kids and say, ‘Your job is to show me you know the material. Now you decide how you can show me you know.’ Written tests, verbal tests, different projects, things of that nature," he says. "And that’s what we attempt to do. That’s what alternative education really does.”

He says a lot the time people don’t understand the students at alternative schools. The assumption is often that they’re the so-called “bad kids.”

“We have all kinds of kids. And many of them just don’t fit into the comprehensive environment," he says.

Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
Blue, a therapy dog at Metro-Meridian.

That includes students who struggle to focus in crowded classrooms, have children of their own or work to help support their families. Some have health issues that keep them out of school for weeks at a time. And there are those like Jade, who needed a little extra TLC to get the most out of her education.

Farag compares alternative education to an emergency room at a hospital.

“We take care of the ones that need immediate care. And we also take care of the ones that the comprehensives don’t the time or the personnel to deal with. Especially with the larger classes," he says.

Until now, class sizes at both Metro-Meridian and Metro-Boulevard have been relatively small, with anywhere from 15 to 25 students. Wichita Public Schools Superintendent John Allison spoke about the consolidation at a board of education meeting last week.

“The location would change. The program will have some change to it because you’re going to have to increase pupil-to-teacher ratios," he said.

Allison didn’t give exact numbers, but consolidating the schools would put close to 290 students at Metro-Boulevard. And so far, there's been no talk about a plan to increase the amount of staff. Teachers at both Metros have been assured they will still have a job somewhere in the district following the consolidation.

Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
A stack of moving boxes sits outside of Joanna Farmer's classroom at Metro-Meridian.

Farmer has taught science at Metro-Meridian for the past 11 years, but she doesn’t know where or what she’ll be teaching next year. In the hall outside of her classroom are huge stacks of unassembled cardboard boxes. Even if she packs up her books and papers, she doesn’t know where they’ll end up.

“I have no idea. None of us have been told yet. We’re supposed to find out by Wednesday," she says. "We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what we’re packing or if we’re supposed to pack or what we’re supposed to do so we’re just kind of in limbo.”

Across town at Metro-Boulevard, Ray Farag is in the same boat. He’s also worried about the students. He says when Boulevard moved to its current location at Chester I. Lewis Learning Center from its previous location near Lincoln and Boulevard, the school lost a significant number of students because of the distance.

“I don’t want us to be an alternative opportunity for those kids in name only," he says. "And that’s the fear.”

Both Farag and Joanna Farmer are glad one alternative school will be open this fall, even though just a few years ago there were three in Wichita. It’s not an option for many smaller districts to provide the kind of specialized instruction alternative centers can. The teachers say they hope the district continues to give teachers the tools they need to provide that instruction to students. The alternative programs would be a blend of traditional teaching and virtual instruction.

“I think Chester Lewis is going to be the best option for them at this point. I think that the class sizes are going to be larger and I think a lot of it’s going to be computer-based, which is a little scary because I know some kids, well, any kid, trying to get them to sit in front of a computer for seven straight hours to do homework is a lot to ask of any kid," Farmer says.

Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
After the death of a class pet, guinea pig Misty, students at Metro-Meridian used the headstone to also mark the end of alternative education in Wichita.

Farag says he’s afraid some kids will fall through the cracks if the alternative education center ends up structured more like a comprehensive high school.

“You’ve got to have an alternative. You’ve got to do something. That’s what I’ve learned in the ten years dealing with alternative education. You’ve got to give them some reason to feel they can make it," he says. "That’s my hope. And now we’re going to wait and see if it is for those who are there.”

Answers as to how the classes at Metro-Boulevard will be structured and who will teach remain up in the air--something the administration still needs to sort out in time for students to enroll in the only alternative school left in the district.


Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.