A year ago, Jasmine Sanders' high school career was unraveling fast, like a tattered baseball.
She didn't feel smart enough. She skipped school, cut classes, argued with fellow students at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and saw little hope for the future.
Then, last fall, Jasmine's guidance counselor recommended that she apply to The Learning Center, Fayette County Public Schools' new alternative school for middle school and high school students who have been failing in mainstream classrooms. One of the first 50 students admitted, Jasmine quickly blossomed in The Learning Center's intimate, familylike atmosphere. Now, the 18-year-old senior is on track to graduate, plans to earn an associate degree, and dreams of becoming an officer in the Navy.
"I don't put myself down anymore, tell myself that I'm not smart enough, or just give up," Jasmine said. "Here, if you're struggling with something, they will stop and make sure you understand it. They really want you to succeed here."
That's a strong endorsement for a school still in its first year of operation. But Jasmine's success story is one of many floating around the halls at The Learning Center, which is in the old Linlee Elementary School off Georgetown Road. Students who once were failing now see a future filled with possibilities. And teachers say the center's slower pace and smaller classes give them the time to learn each student's needs and find ways to meet them — things they often couldn't do at larger schools.
Students in all Fayette County middle or high schools may apply to The Learning Center. Those who are accepted may spend all or part of their days at the alternative school, depending on individual needs. They also can maintain ties with and play sports at their home schools. Applications are available through any school counseling office.
Enrollment at The Learning Center will double to 100 next year, and officials say it eventually will grow to about 200 as the district reaches out to more students who need the services the school offers.
"It's been a long-term goal for us to have something for kids who were not necessarily discipline problems but just had trouble fitting into the regular setting," Superintendent Stu Silberman said. "It's taken us a while to do it. But I'm tickled to death with the way it's going so far."
The Learning Center is geared for students who "have great potential but for whatever reason are underachieving," Principal Ron Chi said.
"Some of these students have learning disabilities," he said. "Many have been truant; some have been through family court; many have been thinking about quitting school. Most have circumstances, whether at home or in the neighborhood, that have kept them from being committed to school. We really need to reach these kids."
The Learning Center tries to do that in several ways. Classes are small, often fewer than 10 students. Teachers use standard curriculum but teach it in different ways. At The Learning Center, academic work goes hand-in-hand with real-world experience.
For example, in math teacher Bruce Maybriar's room you'll find a large, complex, geometric pattern laid out on the floor with tape. It's an exercise in geometry — and the design for a garden gazebo, which students are going to build on the school grounds this spring. There also are plans for planting vegetables, landscaping and a Christmas tree farm.
Students also are turning a room at the school into a museum, with exhibits they are building themselves. There will even be a cave, complete with a waterfall designed and built by students — all as a part of the learning process.
Faculty members say that everything begins with developing relationships and gaining the trust of students who might have little of that commodity when they first arrive at The Learning Center. Teachers are encouraged to take time to interact with students individually, whether it's explaining a classroom topic or helping with personal problems.
"Many of them were discouraged when they first came," said Maybriar, the math teacher. "They had sort of been chewed up and beaten down, so we try to build them up. They aren't bad kids. They have failed at other schools, but they're hungry to learn. These kids' math scores have skyrocketed this year."
Thanks to the jump start he's received at The Learning Center, Thomas Allen Logan is carrying a 4.0 grade-point average this year. Often in trouble at Tates Creek High School last year, Logan, 19, now is thinking about college or even graduate school. He credits the atmosphere at The Learning Center — and Ron Chi's personal inspiration — for much of the change.
"My last report card at Tates Creek was absolutely horrendous," Logan said. "I didn't have any goals or aspirations at all. But after meeting Mr. Chi I really wanted to change things. He started it all."
Toby Johnson, 14, says he "stayed in trouble" at Beaumont Middle School last year.
"I just thought I wasn't smart enough. I figured that I'd get kicked out by the time I got to high school anyway, so it really didn't matter," he said. "But now I really like to come to school."
Chi said Learning Center students racked up almost 340 referrals for discipline at the schools they were attending last year. This year, they have only a little more than 80.
Meanwhile, Learning Center teachers say they're getting benefits as well.
Jennifer Humble taught science at Dunbar last year, but the 14-year veteran wanted a different challenge. She applied to join the faculty at The Learning Center as soon as she heard Fayette County was launching the school. Now, she's helping Learning Center students with their museum project, plus teaching science and math.
"Here, I actually know kids' names," she said. "Not just the students in my classes, but in the whole school. That's fantastic. We have the time to interact with the kids, find the ways they learn and meet them where they are.
"It's a thrill to see them grow, to see them realize that they really can do the work, and see them start to believe they can achieve more than they ever thought possible. This school is where I want to stay."