The school uses a hybrid model of online learning and traditional instruction, with 90-minute classes.
Source: Dalton Schools
DALTON, Ga. -- No one sits alone in the cafeteria.
For 17-year-old Katie Capel, that defines the difference at Morris Innovative High School.
"I was that girl -- the one who sat alone in the cafeteria and looked behind me when I walked down the hall," Capel said.
Capel and three of her classmates are eager to describe their new school home, the one that has turned them from kids struggling to make it in high school to thriving, excited students who will graduate ahead of schedule.
"Here it is so different," Capel said. "The teachers sit with you and help you. You work at your own pace. There are no cliques, and if I see someone sitting alone, I go over and grab them. I don't let anyone sit alone."
All across the country, people are discussing ways to fix America's faltering education system, weighing the effectiveness of initiatives such as the federal Race to the Top, charter schools, smaller class sizes and career pathways.
In Dalton, educators have found a partial, ever-changing model at Morris Innovative High School.
The high school opened in the fall of 2009 as a way to help students who had fallen behind in their classes at Dalton High School. The students did almost all their work online in computer classrooms.
The first year, there were about 100 students in the renovated elementary school. Last year, that number jumped to 180, and this year it is about 290. The school system requires some of the students to attend because of failing grades, but more and more they are coming by choice.
The school has morphed from an online-only school for failing students to a high school that allows students to learn at their own pace and attend dual college classes.
Beginning in January, it will offer afternoon and evening classes. A new health care program works with area colleges and the local hospital to allow students to specialize their classes if they are interested in becoming nurses, paramedics or lab technicians.
"Schools need to be more creative," Morris Principal Jennifer Phinney said. "The whole rationale that school only happens from 8 to 3 and in a school building no longer works. You can do 10th-grade English at 5:30 in the afternoon. Public education has got to wrap its head around that and customize education."
"All children, one at a time" is the motto for Morris Innovative High School. The focus is on what the students need individually, said Phinney, who joined the school in the fall of 2010.
Assistant Principal Rob Rojaz has been in the school from the beginning. He said administrators first discussed the concept about six years ago after studies showed that many failing students never made it past ninth grade. If they had difficulty during their first year in high school, they continued to flounder, often dropping out after a year or two, studies showed.
Morris was designed to target that group of students who were flagged by the system. The first year, all learning was online with teacher support.
Students soon complained that they were bored and didn't like only online classes. Veteran teachers, who had been tapped specially to help the students, were not being used, Phinney said.
Last year, the school went to a more traditional classroom style with shorter class blocks. Phinney created a system in which students went to the same classes with other students who were about at their learning level. Students at Morris are not classified into grades because they work at their own pace.
She soon heard from both students and teachers: The "normal" schedule wasn't working.
"So I exploded that whole system, and we went with something completely different," she said. "It's been a kind of adventure -- it's not often you get to do something really different in education."
Now the school offers a hybrid. Classes are 90 minutes long, with about half of that spent in a regular classroom and the other half in an instruction lab. Some classes, such as a government class where students worked Thursday afternoon, are online.
In another classroom, a teacher taught 10th-grade math to students sitting three to four at a table. They worked math problems using worksheets, pencils and calculators as the teacher moved from one student to the next.
Class sizes at Morris are about the same as at Dalton High School, around 25 to 28 students each, but learning is much more individualized. Instead of merely checking off state-required classes, teachers and administrators say they listen to students about their preferred ways to learn.
Many students are not necessarily that far behind, Phinney said. They may have missed a few key concepts, but without help, they will never catch up. Others recently moved to the United States and had to learn English along with ninth-grade history. For many of them, they will be the first students in their family to graduate from high school.
Some of them have the added challenge of working jobs to support their family or caring for younger siblings at home while their parents work. For these students, afternoon and evening classes make sense, Phinney said.
"A lot of these students haven't had a lot of success in school," she said. "We are finding out what they don't know and providing ways for them to be successful."
She is quick to point out that students don't get to decide what they learn, only how they learn it. All state requirements still are met. And the school system actually spends slightly less per student at Morris than it does at Dalton High, according to School Superintendent Jim Hawkins.
"It is about using resources differently," Hawkins said. "Usually when we just reform education and add options, it's like putting it on steroids and it's more expensive. But if you do things differently, you can actually spend less."
At first, students said going to Morris had a stigma attached -- it was where the "dumb kids" were sent. Now teenagers view it as a place where they can go if they want something different from a traditional high school education.
Cameron Rainey was one of the first students sent to Morris. He transferred back to Dalton High last year at his parents' request. This year, the 17-year-old is back at Morris and he couldn't be happier. He plays guitar, belongs to a band club and has nearly doubled his GPA to a 3.5.
"The learning environment is so much better," he said. "You have friends here, and the teachers work with you."
For Jshonelle Perez, the school has allowed her to catch up on credits and she has thrived at Morris, she said. She is taking college classes now.
"I want to go to college and hopefully find a job," she said.
For many students at Morris, those goals would have been out of reach, Phinney said, but the school provides the nurturing environment that makes it possible.
Capel, who will be part of the first graduating class at Morris next spring, said one of the best things about the school is getting to make the traditions. They can choose their colors -- she is leaning toward tie-dye, but fellow graduating classmate Erik Anaya protests -- and decide how the school best represents them as students.
"A lot of the trappings in school -- yearbooks, honors classes -- are there because the adults in the building want it," Phinney said. "Here we ask what it is we really need instead of just putting those trappings in place. It is more meaningful to the students."
Students "have a sense of belonging," Rojaz added. "If you can get them excited about school and involved with their teachers and the curriculum, it doesn't matter how hard it is, they can do it."
For both educators, the 12 students from Morris who graduated with Dalton High School last year and the 22 who will graduate this year -- who likely would not have graduated at all without Morris -- are all they need to tell them the program is a success.
The future for Morris is still an uncharted path, school administrators say, and likely will change as students and their needs change.
"The reality is that they [Dalton High] are our comprehensive traditional high school," Hawkins said. "But Morris is our innovation incubator for the district. It's good for the system to have an innovative school were we where can try things."
Some of those changes eventually may spread to the whole system, he said.
Morris is about at capacity, so officials are exploring the option of renovating an old warehouse for more room. Ideally the school would stay in east Dalton, where many of its students live. But Hawkins said the need to stay small -- 500 to 600 students -- is obvious.
The school system also has come under fire from some officials for talking about buying another building when Dalton High School recently added a new wing and is not at capacity. Dalton High has about 1,425 students this year.
Hawkins said at best, Dalton High could accommodate another 100 students or so, but not the nearly 300 who are enrolled at Morris. Both schools also are growing, he said, and the school system is looking at what it will need in five years.
"We are going in the right direction -- trying to create a pull environment rather than a push environment," he said. "We hope it is a glimpse in the future."