The sound of education at The Learning Center at Linlee is punctuated by the beeps and clicks of text messages on cellphones.
Cellphones are not forbidden at the center. Administrators, knowing that even adults cannot long be parted from their smartphones, have figured out ways to use them as learning tools — in class discussions, for parent notification of what the student learned that day, even the smartphone applications the students like to see.
At Linlee, you won't hear the eardrum-shredding beep that signals students to change classes, either. Outstanding students get to pick the music that signals it's time to change rooms. On this day, it's Knocking On Heaven's Door.
The 150-student magnet school opened for the 2009-10 school year and educates 7th- to 12th-graders who have not succeeded elsewhere because of truancy, disciplinary problems or personal problems. It approaches education differently from the average school.
Fayette County has a variety of magnet and alternative programs, including the School for the Performing Arts, the Spanish immersion program and the Carter G. Woodson program at Crawford Middle School, that offers curriculum that "meets the common core standards through the lens of African-American history, culture and culturally responsive teaching and learning strategies."
The Learning Center is different. Principal Ron Chi wears a pullover and a ball cap, paces the halls in his running shoes, converses with students and pops into classes, making sure that everyone is on point with the school's purpose: building leaders through academic exploration tailored for each student's gifts, which might not have been nurtured in other schools.
But the school is much more than cellphones and classic rock. Chi said the school takes students who have failed to thrive elsewhere, identifies their gifts and builds an education around them.
The school is academically rigorous and emphasizes personal responsibility, Chi said. Students are constantly measuring their personal employability index. They are taught to look forward to the future: How can I use this skill to further my education and work as part of a team?
Just before Thanksgiving, students grabbed shovels and moved rocks in a collaborative effort with University of Kentucky landscape architecture students to build a plaza that includes pavers laid out in a radiating pattern, a sculpture and rocks as big as footstools.
The design chosen by the students was created by UK student Maureen Dreckman, who praised the students' high-energy involvement in the project: "They were really, really full of ideas," Dreckman said. "It was great."
Chi intended to be a doctor but turned to teaching after a stint as a resident adviser with Kentucky's Governor's Scholars program for high school students. He doesn't want his students to just be current with technology. He wants them to think ahead, using "the strategies that keep kids from focusing on the dramas in their life."
"That's what we're trying to harness here at the center: inventing, constructing, problem-solving," he said. "We encapsulate whatever gift they bring into a program and value that."
Chris Salyers, an English teacher and high school director at TLC, said his students "generally struggle in a classroom setting. We empower them to problem-solve, create their own program."
The turnaround starts, Chi said, with the application process. For many of the students, getting a letter that says they are accepted is a rare event, worthy of celebration.
It's the beginning of having students buy in to the program. From then on, they are expected to be leaders as well as students, to participate in projects rather than simply sit and absorb a set curriculum.
"We expect teachers to meet them where they are," Chi said. Then teachers are expected to rapidly move students into an environment that prepares them with skills and a broad education to move them into careers, career training or college.
The students do more than prepare for standardized tests. They are builders: Chi leads the way through a museum-like room where students have built a cave-like interior. In the corner sits a huge animal sculpture.
Practical living also is taught: teamwork, kindness to others, not interrupting, and keeping the school clean.
"We value everything," Chi said. "We value that kid who takes the time to pick up a piece of paper in the hallway."
Chi praises Princess Gordon, 17, for her leadership, and she glows. Princess came to TLC, which is in the renovated Linlee Elementary School, after having a difficult time in school because of personal problems. She has been there since eighth grade; she will graduate in 2013.
"I wasn't getting the learning style I needed," she said. "The work here made more sense to me."
Now Princess wants to go to college and study social work. She is absorbed by her studies at TLC, including the design of the outdoor park.
Selecting a job in social work is the result of both her formerly chaotic living arrangements and the pay-it-forward impact that The Learning Center has had on her, she said.
"I've lived it, and can tell them not just from a book, but from what I've been through."
A group of students gathers in the principal's office with Princess to tell similar stories: Spencer Denison, 16, an 11th-grader who had bad grades in his previous school but has straight A's at TLC and wants to be a Marine; William Tibbs, 15, a 10th-grader who failed his seventh-grade year but is thriving in what he describes as "more hands-on learning. ... You get choices on what you want to do;" and Ceasar Lynch, 16, who said he was very shy at his previous school ("I wasn't a straight-A student, like I am now") and has blossomed at TLC.
PTA president Sarah Weiler said the school "is amazing because you can throw in all these kids who for some reason wouldn't fit in a traditional school, ... and they all have empathy because of their struggles."
Her son Logan, 13 and in eighth grade, "is a really smart kid but always struggled in the classroom. He has dysgraphia, which makes it hard for him to write by hand.
At TLC, she said, "They meet Logan where he is. If he's having a tough time understanding a concept, they'll email it to him at home ... to make it easier for him."
She said the teachers know Logan is interested in technology, and they go out of their way to give him technology-related assignments.
"I always joke I'm getting more than my tax dollars" at the school, Weiler said.
Former Fayette County school superintendent Stu Silberman, now head of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said he remembered talking with several parents "about how this school turned their kids' lives around."
"Their graduation ceremony was always one of the highlights of my year," Silberman wrote in an email. "The rewards are so much greater when the journey was so much more challenging."