A step into the GAP room is a step into a warm and friendly classroom. A variety of soft and squishy seating options, as well as traditional chairs are spaced throughout the room. A corner table holds mini beverage dispensers filled with animal crackers and goldfish. Green and flowery decorations grace the corners and walls as a celebration of the incoming spring. The space has the feel of a cozy nook, hidden away in a corner of CHS.
The GAP or Greyhound Alternative Program is in its first year as Clayton High School’s alternative education program. It replaces the Collaborative School or the Collab, which disbanded at the end of the 2021-22 school year due to a lack of funding. The Collab was a joint endeavor between Clayton, Brentwood, Ladue and formerly Kirkwood school districts, created in 1997. The school, located in an office building in the Hanley Industrial Court, served students, in one of two three-hour daily blocks of computer-based, self-paced instruction. Kirkwood pulled out of the school in 2010 to form their own alternative program. When Brentwood announced their intention to leave in Spring 2022, Clayton and Ladue left to create their own programs as well.
The Greyhound Alternative Program, “bridges the GAP in learning for all students,” said Joyce Bell, former CHS counselor and director of the GAP program.
Bell collaborates with four teachers: Nino La Madrid, Myron Fletcher, Brianna Richards, and Pamela Skinner, all who are shared between the Learning Center or content areas, and the GAP program. GAP’s current location is in room 16 and its adjacent offices, former home of the Learning Center. This location allows adequate distance from the chaos of the hallway, as well as easy access to bathrooms and a school entrance/exit.
Despite common misconceptions, the primary purpose of an alternative school is an “individualized space to meet the needs of students,” said Bell.
Teacher Nino LaMadrid checks on student progress.
Students may be placed in an alternative school for disciplinary reasons, mental health concerns: such as school phobia or social anxiety, medical issues or attendance concerns.
“Every student has a different story and we’re just here to try and help meet that need,” said Bell.
The GAP program is intended to provide a separate environment from the rest of CHS, with classes starting slightly later and ending in the middle of Greyhound Time. This set-up allows students to engage with the traditional CHS community at a level that is healthy and comfortable for them, with some students avoiding it entirely and other students eating lunch with friends and participating in school-wide activities such as Prom and Homecoming.
Students take all of their classes online, through the Edmentum educational software. All lessons are done on the computer, but GAP teachers assist, support and supplement by conferencing, answering questions and with additional activities.
Learning in the GAP program is “very focused and hands-on,” said CHS GAP and Learning Center teacher Brianna Richards.
Through the online program, a variety of classes are offered, in order to meet the needs of diverse students. GAP student Meadow McNeary has taken art history and cosmetology classes through Edmentum. While cosmetology is one of her potential career interests, the class was not exactly what she expected. “I hated cosmetology. I dropped it because I thought I was going to be learning how to paint hair. Instead they were teaching me about germs on combs,” McNeary joked.
The in-school portion of a GAP student’s day is over by 11:30, so most students engage in work or community service activities in the afternoon or evening, sometimes even for credit. Some GAP students work in food service, or bagging groceries, others on career interests, such as construction or advertising.
In the afternoons, McNeary babysits a two and seven year old, and works on writing and practicing her songs and raps. “I’m trying to build the vocabulary in my brain so I can be better at my craft,” said McNeary.
The main way that the GAP program supports students is with flexibility. “Students are able to work at their pace,” said Bell.
Some students work on one class at a time, finishing an entire semester or year of work in one subject before moving on to another. Others take a more traditional approach, completing a small amount of work in each subject each day. Classes are designed so that students have as little work to complete at home as possible. This flexibility is essential to combat the monotony of completing three hours of computer work each day.
“I like the fact that I can control my work. I can get it done faster and have less anxiety,” said McNeary.
I like the fact that I can control my work. I can get it done faster and have less anxiety.
— Meadow McNeary
Richards also believes that the flexibility and self-paced work can build critical skills for students, many of whom struggle with time management and task completion in traditional settings. “The flexibility of it works well. Though I think self-paced work can be hard sometimes. It’s nice to see students be able to achieve things on their own,” said Richards.
In an effort to reach students in such an individualized environment, Bell focuses on building a strong community in the program. Every morning begins with a question of the day, which encourages students to connect with each other and with the teachers. Bell also provides snack breaks and collaboration opportunities on classwork, as well as decorating her room for each season and holiday.
“We’ve become this little family,” said Bell, “they’re just very protective of each other and they know that they’re all in here to be successful.
This community also engages in social-emotional learning, as well as academic. When students are upset, Bell and her staff lead whole group, small group and individual processing discussions to comfort students and help them build skills to deal with real-life situations.
This also allows the teachers to develop strong relationships with individual students, to support them with their unique challenges. “Because they’re working independently that gives me the time to be one on one with each of them,” said Bell.
At the close of the 2021-2022 school year, Bell was rushed to find a place for Clayton’s new alternative program. “I’ve always known alternative schools to be in alternative settings,” said Richards
Moving some English and Learning Center classrooms allowed GAP to take over room 16, giving students and teachers in the program access to resources and classes within CHS. Some GAP students take elective classes such as culinary arts and fashion design in the traditional CHS setting.
McNeary took culinary arts classes last year, but found the typical environment difficult. “It was hard to take notes, then look at my computer, then look at the TV screen,” said McNeary.
An in-building location also allows GAP to access resources within the building, including content area teachers, nurses, social workers, special education teachers and counselors. At the Collab, the social worker visited once a month, at CHS, there is a social worker present three days a week. Being on campus also allows students an easier transition back into traditional school if they choose.
“Being on campus has helped students still feel connected to the community,” said Bell.
Being on campus has helped students still feel connected to the community
— Joyce Bell
The creation and directing of the GAP program is the capstone to Bell’s long career in education and counseling. She began as a special education teacher, doing one-on-one pull out work with students. She was then hired as the Director of Learning Support at CHS, then moved into the counseling department. Now, at the finale of her career, she has pioneered a new alternative program to support Clayton students.
As the director of the GAP program, Bell feels that she is able to use all of her skills, experience and knowledge from her many different roles to support students with diverse needs.
“I enjoy just working with the students. And watching them find success,” said Bell.