Alee Academy Story

As Spencer Rogers wrote, “There is one thing that students of all socio-economic status, cultures, ethnicities, abilities, and genders have in common. They are all human learners with the same core emotional needs. These essential emotional needs drive all student behavior and motivation to learn. When students’ emotional needs are not met, they are unable to focus on learning and unwilling to monitor their behavior so that it is appropriate for the learning environment” Teachers who choose to teach at Alee Academy do so because they enjoy working with potential dropouts. The small school, small class environment, and engaging curriculum promote relationship building between teachers and students to meet the basic emotional needs of these students and to maintain their interest in graduating from high school.

Since its charter in 1999, Alee Academy has opened its doors to those students who were given up on and labeled as troublemakers. These students though have flourished within the small class setting, which offers more individualized instruction. We have seen the students grow, mature, succeed in their high school career and then become successful contributors to society.

During the first year, sixty-four at-risk and dropout students attended Alee Academy. The staff was small with three teachers, one instructor, one administrator and an office assistant. Even though the school was small, the student produced some exemplary academic results. In the area of testing, the first High School Competency Test (HSCT) was offered in October of 1999, none of the students tested passed the communication portion while two of five students tested passed the math portion. In February of 2000, five of six students tested passed the communication and four of five students tested passed the math. And finally in March of 2000, four of five students tested passed both the communication and math portions of the HSCT.

The FCAT was offered in 2000, twelve students of which only one successfully passed the reading and math portions of the test. The average score for each portion was 222 for reading and 240 for math (at the time a passing score was 300). Even though these scores were not the passing scores, it did establish a baseline from which the staff and students could go to work on improving.

Other exemplary results realized were in the student 91.3% retention, the average daily attendance was 90.4%, and the overall satisfaction level reported was: students 85.9%, parents 91.4%, teachers 84.8%, and employers 93.7%.

The students’ math skill level as tested with the Stanford Diagnostic Math Test during the 1999-2000 school year improved from a 5.6 grade level to a 6.7 grade level or an improvement of 1.1 grade levels by year-end. The students’ reading skill level as tested with the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test during the 1999-2000 school year improved from a 5.8 grade level to a 7.2 grade level or an improvement of 1.4 grade levels by year-end.

Additionally thirty-two students improved their GPA, fifty-eight students improved their attendance, and twelve students received the President Award for Educational Excellence; five for Outstanding Academic Achievement and seven for Outstanding Educational Improvement. But by far, the greatest academic achievements in all the first year was that nine of the eleven students who were eligible for graduation successfully returned to their zone school and walked with their classmates.

Clint Van Nagel, Ph.D., professor at the University of North Florida performed an Assessment and Evaluation of Alee Academy during its first year of operation. Dr. Van Nagel found that “The staff at Alee Academy had an extremely successful year in spite of the fact that it was the first year for the school to be in operation school. Both formative and summative evaluations of students, parents, employers and staff support this conclusion.” He further stated, “the dedication of the staff, sincerity, and willingness to go the extra mile and support each other are commendable.” Dr. Van Nagel believed this to be the real reason for the success of Alee Academy.

In the second year of operation Alee Academy again attained exemplary results. During the 2000-2001 school year, ninety-eight at-risk and dropout students attended Alee Academy. In August 2000, Alee Academy was approached by then Superintendent Jerry Smith and asked to provide an alternative education setting for Department of Juvenile Justice aftercare, adjudicated, and students placed in-lieu of expulsion. Thus, the ACER Aftercare program was implemented and opened its doors to thirty-eight students.

The small staff of six from the first year grew to fifteen. The staff consisted of six teachers, one instructor, two teacher assistants, two bus drivers, a transition coordinator, a system administrator, an administrator and an office assistant. The student teacher ratio remained at 15:1 assuring students the opportunity to produced exemplary academic results. During the 2000-2001 school year, the HSCT was offered three times and once during summer school. A total of 61 students were tested. Twenty-seven of the fifty-five students who took the communications test successfully passed. Twenty-eight of the fifty-one students who took the math test successfully passed. This is a pass rate of 51.8% for the HSCT.

Nineteen students also took the FCAT. Five of the fourteen students successfully passed the FCAT reading test and six of nineteen successfully passed the FCAT math test. The average score for FCAT reading was 252, an increase of 30 points from the baseline score of the previous year. Likewise, the average score for the FCAT math was 272, an increase of 32 points from the baseline scores of the previous year. 36% of students met the minimum standard for reading and 37% of the students met the minimum standard for math. Based on the student population of each program as well as the reading and math skill levels of many of the students when they enroll, these are certainly exemplary results.

Furthermore, in the 2000-2001 school year the student retention rate of the two programs again far exceeded expectations with 91.4% of the students remaining enrolled in school at year-end. The average daily attendance for the two programs was 89.9%. Again, satisfaction surveys were distributed to the students, their parents, the teachers and the employers of the students. The overall satisfaction level reported in the second year of operation by each group was: students 84.02%, parents 90.52%, teachers 86.01%, and employers 94.8%.

The students’ math skill level as tested with the Stanford Diagnostic Math Test during the 2000-2001 school year improved from a 5.1 grade level to a 6.8 grade level or an improvement of 1.7 grade levels by year-end. The students’ reading skill level as tested with the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test during the 2000-2001 school year improved from a 5.7 grade level to a 7.7 grade level or an improvement of 1.95 grade levels by year-end.

Other exemplary student achievements were thirty-two students improved their GPA, sixty-two students improved their attendance, and sixteen students received the President Award for Educational Excellence; four for Outstanding Academic Achievement and twelve for Outstanding Educational Improvement. Again, of all the academic achievements realized, we are the proudest of the fact that the twenty-five students who were eligible for graduation successfully returned to their zone school and walked with their classmates.

Clint Van Nagel, Ph.D., professor at the University of North Florida performed an Assessment and Evaluation in the second year of operation for Alee Academy. Dr. Van Nagel found that “Alee Academy met its 2000-2001 goals. This is highly commendable for an alternative program in its second year of operation.” He pointed out that the Alee Academy staff is a highly dedicated and conscientious staff, but noted an area of concern as the effects of an increase in student enrollment within the current facility. Citing educational psychology research, Dr. Van Nagel stated, “A larger facility will soon be needed in order to accommodate the student growth of the program. If student numbers and programs increase without additional personnel and building space, the program is inviting student conflict and aggression.” He concluded his assessment and evaluation by encouraging the staff to celebrate their school achievements and accomplishments.

Alee Academy is recognized as an asset to Lake County Schools. The ability of the staff to work with at-risk students has noticeably contributed to the reduction in the high school dropout rate. In its short three-year history Alee Academy has acquired numerous assets. These would include but are not limited to furniture, fixtures, equipment, computer hardware, computer software, wood working equipment, leasehold improvements, and motor vehicles. According the financial audit at the end of the 2000-2001 school year, the approximate value of these general fixed assets was $501,229.00. During the 2001-2002 school year, Alee Academy acquired 31.5 acres of property inside the Eustis City limits valued at more than $300,000.00.

In 2001-2002 Alee Academy was recognized as one of three recipients of the annual Crystal Star of Excellence Awards in Dropout Recovery, Intervention and Prevention presented by the National Dropout Prevention Network. The award was presented during the 14th Annual National Dropout Prevention Network Conference awards breakfast in San Diego, Calif.

Alee Academy was chosen by the NDPN based on clear evidence of strong leadership in furthering the mission of the network and its outstanding contribution to effective dropout prevention strategies, research, and development. Alee Academy has demonstrated the use of a variety of strategies shown to be effective in working with youth in at-risk situations. Strategies include direct teacher instruction, one-on-one tutoring, computer-assisted learning, field trips, individualized instruction, collaborative learning and work site training. Graduation rates and test scores have increased each year that Alee Academy has been in existence.

The South Side Eatery, a small sandwich shop located next door to Alee Academy closed in 2002 and remained vacant for some time. The staff saw this as an opportunity to expand the vocational training for the students. Alee Academy purchased the food service equipment and leased the space for one year to see if the students could make it work. The South Side Eatery “owned and operated by the students of Alee Academy” is now in its fourth year of operation.

The sandwich shop has been successful in affording students an opportunity to learn new skills, earn their food service certificate, work with the public and provide an alternative lunch menu to the school. Regular customers from within the community visit the sandwich shop daily. In the four years of operation, the restaurant has always received outstanding marks from the food service inspectors. This is a direct reflection of the effort by the staff to provide new ways for the students to be successful.

In 2002, Alee Academy began working on construction plans for a new facility to be located on the 31.5 acres recently purchased. Alee Academy worked with Parrish Builders and Swilley, Curtis, Mundy, Hunnicutt, Associates Architects, Inc. on designing the facility. Capital Resource was enlisted to develop a financial feasibility plan for the construction project. Application was made to acquire a loan guarantee for Rural Development through the United States Department of Agriculture. Mercantile Bank became the financial lending institution as long as Alee Academy received a ten-year contract and the loan guarantee.

In the third and last year of the first charter contract, Alee Academy requested a renewal of its current contract. The Lake County School Board granted the request by Alee Academy for the contract renewal in a unanimous vote. The school board awarded a ten-year charter contract with Lake County Schools beginning July 1, 2002 and ending June 30, 2012.

With the new contract in hand, Alee Academy completed the design/planning stages and received financial backing. On November 5, 2003 the Ground Breaking Ceremony was held at the new site and construction began on the same day. Even though there were some minor delays during the construction of the new school, the project was completed ahead of schedule and under budget.

Alee Academy retained the lease on the original site in Umatilla. This site functions as a ninth grade center, thus providing an extra year for the student to mature and attain a strong foundation for their high school career. The new facility opened its doors to the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade students. Even with having the two sites available for student enrollment in the 2004-2005 school year, the enrollment request far exceeded the student capacity in the charter contract.

By reaching beyond the traditional school environment to provide services to younger children in the community, the students of Alee Academy are reaping benefits. A Read-n-Serve program was designed and implemented in concert with local elementary schools. Through diagnostic testing, Alee Academy identifies students with low reading skills who will be part of the Read-n-Serve program. These students then travel to the elementary schools and read with students from kindergarten to fifth grade. The Read-n-Serve program has been identified as a successful training tool in improving student reading skills in both the elementary and high school students. Furthermore, the daily interactions between the students have also increased their self-confidence and social skills.

Additionally, many unique programs have been established at Alee Academy to engage students in learning. These programs are based on strong partnerships with the community and a variety of agencies. Alee Academy continues to provide community support through various service learning projects. These include but are not limited to:

  • Mobile Eco Lab in the Ocala National Forest.
  • Water Quality Testing in the lakes within the Ocala National Forest.
  • Lake Clean-Up (IBINI TERA).
  • Recycling Farm H20 with the University of Florida.
  • Various environmental studies on the wetlands and pond on the school property as well as nearby lakes. These have included plant dissections, water quality, freshwater inverts, submerged vegetation, water recycling, water filtration of cubicula, lake and waterway cleanups, large mouth bass surveys, and aquaponics, and a large mouth bass survey in the Ocala National Forest.
  • Trout Lake Nature Center support.
  • Woodworking, which included park bench, construction of handicap picnic tables and the construction of handicap ramps.
  • Monofilament Retrieval Project in collaboration with St. Johns Water Management and the US Forestry Service.
  • An aeration system of the Getford pond.
  • The Southside Eatery, a sub shop, which is managed by the students.
  • A weather station outside the science classroom.
  • A windmill to provide aeration of the retention pond.
  • A partnership with St. Johns Water Management, City of Leesburg, Leesburg Regional, Medical Center, and the Lake County Water Authority for the restoration of the Bourlay House, a 1930s era cracker house located at the Bourlay Historical Nature Park on Lake Harris.

New service projects that are in the planning and implementation stages include but are not limited to:

  • Developing an Eco System in the Retention Pond to support the raising of catfish.
  • Aquaponics System to Raise Vegetables for the South Side Eatery.
  • Construction of Green Houses to Raise Vegetable for the South Side Eatery.

During the first three years, students successfully completed the program at Alee Academy returned to their zone high schools for graduation. A transition began in the fourth year of operation as Lake County Schools requested that Alee Academy begin offering a high school diploma and holding its own graduation ceremony.

Alee Academy has flourished in its short history. Growing from a small staff of six with sixty-four students to a staff of twenty-six, serving two hundred ninety-six students. Working with each at-risk student as an individual assuring them they can be successful and recognizing each success no matter how small has proven to work. Had it not been for a second chance, two hundred forty students would not have graduated high school. As can be seen in the chart below, Alee Academy is meeting the needs of the at-risk student. In this the 2007-2008 school year, there are seventy-two students who have been identified as candidates for high school graduation.

There is great need to in Lake County to provide services for at-risk students. In an effort to get ahead of the curve and possibly address the needs of at-risk youth at an early age, Alee Academy is working with the Boys and Girls Club to provide an appropriate facility for an after school program.

Alee students have become responsible citizens in our communities. Of the students who have graduated from Alee since 2000, and only three of these students have been incarcerated. Some of the areas where these graduates are include:

Armed Forces

  • Marine Corps
  • Navy
  • Air Force
  • Army

Post-Secondary Schools

  • Lake Technical School
  • Lake Sumter Community College
  • Daytona Beach Community College
  • Tallahassee Community College
  • University of Central Florida
  • University of Tampa
  • Grambling State University in Louisiana

Places of Employment

  • Construction
  • Landscaping
  • Plumbing
  • Department of Health
  • Attorney Offices
  • Real Estate companies
  • Department stores
  • Restaurants

Types of Careers

  • Certified Nursing Assistants
  • Behavior Therapists
  • Office Manager
  • Secretaries
  • Massage Therapist
  • Store Managers
  • System Administrators
  • Grounds Keepers

In 2005, Alee Academy was graded for the first time as a part of Florida A+ program and was determined to be a failing school. The school has made changes to the philosophy and curriculum to meet the requirements of the Assistance Plus Program in an effort to improve the School Grade. However, the very nature of the student population served by this school makes the challenge of meeting traditional-based criteria in one year is very challenging. When all students are considered to be struggling learners (most read at the 5th grade level when they enroll in Alee), more than one year is necessary to improve the level of reading proficiency from the 5th grade level to the 9th or 10th grade level that is necessary to pass the FCAT test. Several students even told the principal after the FCAT testing that they hoped they did well enough to help the school grades. The students and teachers want to succeed in this endeavor, yet they have been stressed trying to improve the School Grade so the school will not be closed after this year. According to Robert Marzano, students will put forth effort when students clearly understand the learning outcome and how it will be evaluated, when students feel the learning goals and assessment are meaningful and worth learning, and if they are able to see their potential for success.

The recent publicity regarding dropouts on the Oprah Winfrey Show and by Bill Gates demonstrates the need to do something different to encourage and help at-risk students graduate from high school. With continued collaboration from the Florida Department of Education and Lake County Schools, Alee Academy can become a model school for this very effort.

To date, 459 of the students served by Alee students have achieved success in receiving a high school diploma. As the parable goes, millions of starfish wash up on the beach to inevitably die. Some are thrown back into the sea and live. Ask any one of these students who have graduated if Alee Academy made a difference in his or her success. The answer will be a resounding, yes!