Linn-Mar alternative program helps get students on track to graduate, pursue their future
MARION — The hallway at Linn-Mar’s COMPASS Alternative Center filled with students last week as they celebrated Kira Sharp, 17, dressed in a cap and gown.
Upon completing the credits Sharp needed to graduate, she walked the halls as a student for the last time at the alternative program to a round of applause, taking time to hug and high-five classmates and teachers alike.
COMPASS was “my lifesaver to get the help I needed,” Sharp said.
Sharp, who was a student at Linn-Mar High, made the decision to attend COMPASS last year because she struggles with anxiety that causes her to miss classes. Some mornings, she would arrive at school and be unable to leave her car, she said.
At the COMPASS program — which serves more than 100 11th- and 12th-grade students — Sharp said she didn’t feel overwhelmed like she did at the 2,200-student high school.
She felt supported by teachers who were able to get to know her better because of smaller class sizes, Sharp said.
Sharp was able to catch up on the classes she missed at Linn-Mar High and graduate earlier than she was expected to in May 2023. She still hopes to walk with her graduating class in the spring.
The small celebration last week, however, is the way many students at COMPASS are recognized for their achievement instead of waiting for a larger graduation ceremony in May.
COMPASS had a record-breaking number of graduates during the 2021-22 school year with 76 students graduating, said COMPASS director Steve Goodall.
The program meets each student where they are by providing them an individualized graduation plan, modified schedule and small student-to-teacher ratio.
A transfer to COMPASS can be made with the support of a students’ parents or guardian. Students who attend COMPASS may have experienced a disruptive life event that interferes with their progress toward graduation or need an altered school day schedule other school’s can’t accommodate.
COMPASS is open to students until they are age 21.
Students come to COMPASS from Linn-Mar High School, the Marion Independent School District and ATLAS — which stands for Achieving Transition through Learning, Advancement and Success — a program through Four Oaks for at-risk youth.
Four Oaks is a nonprofit juvenile justice, and behavioral health agency in Cedar Rapids that provides services to children and families across Iowa. Children in the ATLAS program live in Four Oaks residential facility in Marion.
A solution for some
Logan Adams, 17, was a student at Marion High School when he decided he needed something different.
“I didn’t try to reach my full potential” at Marion High, where he felt like he was “hanging on by a thread,” Adams said.
COMPASS was a solution for him. Since transferring into the program, Adams said he’s never felt like he wasn’t going to graduate. He also has plans to pursue college or trade school after graduating, which he expects to do in January 2023.
Kourtney Albright, COMPASS Language Arts teacher, said she sees incredible growth from students during their time in the program. School goes from something they feel like they have to do to a priority, she said.
Amy Stevens, a teacher with the ATLAS program, said 90 percent of her job is being a mom first, then an educator since the students aren’t living with their families when they’re in the program.
“We show them this is a safe place, and we’re here to support them and their progress,” Stevens said. “I listen without judgment.”
Students are typically in the ATLAS program between four to nine months, Stevens said.
“We try to love them while they’re here and make this a positive experience — plant a seed,” Stevens said.
COMPASS counselor Danielle Patterson said the program is like a family. Staff members know learning can’t happen if a student is hungry, sick or experiencing a panic attack. The school has a food pantry, clothing closet and hygiene pantry available to students.
COMPASS is Patterson’s “favorite place I’ve been” she said.
“These are my favorite kids,” she said. “You give them love and a place to grow and they do incredible things.”
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