With recent changes in the Johnson City Schools, there are likely to be some big changes in local education. One of those changes includes converting what has been known as the Alternative Center on West Market Street into Topper Academy, where a new approach to alternative education will be tried.
Melanie Riden-Bacon, who recently left her position as Science Hill High School principal to help institute these changes, said she thinks it’s time for a new approach — one that helps students recover academically and behaviorally in a way that isn’t punitive.
According to her, the traditional approach for students who aren’t achieving or have behavioral issues is to simply put those students in a different place to punish them, and not allow them the choice to reintegrate into mainstream educational facilities like Science Hill.
Riden-Bacon said it’s time for a “culture shift.”
“That is the stigma that’s always been attached to this place, and it’s a stigma that we’re changing,” she said. “It’s really not all about behavior — it’s also about students who might be behind in credits or haven’t had the same educational support.
“The vision is very simple — it’s just making a positive difference. Our mission is to be the ‘key-carrying adult that gives a student a chance to turn things around.’ ”
Riden-Bacon said the changes at the facility will allow students to get more one-on-one support to catch up academically, as well as address “the root” of their behavioral problems in an understanding and compassionate way.
Aside from giving students more incentives to succeed, such as field trips and other activities aimed at rewarding good behavior and academic progress, there will be more emphasis on providing counseling to students. Dr. David Timbs, supervisor of secondary and instructional technology, said he believes this new approach will help students learn to cope with adverse experiences that shape their behavior and affect their progress in school.
According to Diana Morelen, an associate professor in East Tennessee State University’s psychology department, it’s important to listen to what behavior is trying to say.
“I think it is important for the community to understand that behavior is a form of communication,” Morelen said. “As adults, we need to be curious about what those behaviors are communicating. It's not that they're trying to be ‘bad’ — it's that they're expressing needs.”
Fifty-two percent of Tennessee residents have at least one adverse or traumatic event in childhood that can affect behavior, according to Morelen. She said behavioral science provides insight on how to rectify behavioral issues.
“In general, the science behind behavior management suggests that positive reinforcement, and things such as rewards, is the most productive and adaptive approach,” she added.
This is the approach that is being adopted, according to Riden-Bacon.
“We’re trying to give these students a chance to see that they do have opportunities,” Riden-Bacon said. “Sometimes the academic situation that you’re in is a result of all of these other factors in your life.
“It’s not that you’re not smart or that you can’t achieve.”
Riden-Bacon said it is important to let students know they have the choice to succeed and change.
“We’re trying to teach them choices as well. You may not have control over your situation outside of school, but at school, you have choices you can make — you do have control,” she said.
Timbs said he’s excited about the new changes. He said it is time to “shift the paradigm.”
“Alternative education used to be about (having) a place for those students who weren't functioning well to go. But the new philosophy is that this is a smaller place for students to come and to get the academic help they need, get the social help they need, the mental help they need and learn how to be successful and reintegrate into the larger schools,” Timbs said.
In other words, students will now have an easier chance to reintegrate into the main facilities.
“It’s not a punitive place. It’s a positive place where students can be with teachers who understand all of these things they need,” Timbs said.
Since Timbs, Riden-Bacon and new Superintendent Steve Barnett all believe in doing some things a little bit differently in terms of alternative education, it seemed suitable to begin making some changes at the facility, according to Riden-Bacon.
Riden-Bacon said she has always had a “heart for kids,” and wanted a chance to work more with individual students, which is something she said she didn’t get as much of a chance to do at her previous position.
“I know this a passion of Superintendent Steve Barnett, I know it is for Dr. Timbs and it has been for me — so the timing (to make these changes) has been perfect. It just all fit together and worked out,” Riden Bacon said. “And I love change and doing something different.”