Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

November 29, 2012

Redefining education

Harris Academy offers alternative concept

Bart Doan

BROWNSBURG — Harris Academy Principal Bill Titus says he’s been giving the same speech for 33 years: “Grow up.”

“I’ve given it so many times I have it memorized,” he said. “I wrote that dude myself.”

The school in Brownsburg takes students from all walks of life. The students work at their own pace in a format designed to give real life experiences on the way to graduating from high school.

“To me, it’s all about relationships, not data,” Titus said. “These young people are human beings with dreams and goals and ambitions. They’re not numbers and we’ve got to stop treating them like they’re numbers.”

Harris is a small learning community serving Avon and Brownsburg high school students who are typically juniors or seniors. The school year calendar consists of four nine-week quarters.

Harris has between 150 to 200 students on any given day. As people work at their own pace, they graduate at their own pace too.

Students there sometimes work full-time jobs. Some are parents who appreciate the free day care service that’s available. The student body is made up of both teen-agers and adults.

The teens can still play sports at their home high school and still get to attend prom.

This is not a school for students who couldn’t cut it at their regular high school, but rather a school for anyone and everyone. Some students may have had an outstanding grade point average at their regular school and needed a quicker pace to be challenged; others may have struggled to keep up at their regular school.

“There’s not one thing that any two people on the planet do at the same pace,” Titus said. “We grow hair, we walk, we talk, we run, we chew gum, everything at a different pace. But for some reason, we expect young people from 5 years old to 18 years old to learn the exact same stuff on the exact same day on the exact same pace as the 29 other students in the classroom for 180 days and we expect them to do that for 13 years. Now I don’t understand that.

“People think this school is for dumb kids, trouble makers, and pregnant girls, and you know what, it’s for everybody. It’s for students with low GPAs. We have a child center. We try to be everything to every student every day. We had a student from Avon last year with a 4.3 GPA. We have a lot of non-traditional thinkers, artists, singers, painters, we have a lot of racers from in-line skating to a BMX bicycle girl from Avon that graduated last year. We have sprint car racers, even a student who drove a top fuel car. The requirements to come here are for students that want or need to learn a different way.”

Tamara Mizdalo is a senior at Harris who says her education is important but she has other things on her plate as well.

“Last week I went to class from noon to 3:30 p.m. and went to work before and after that,” she said. “If you have a job interview, they’ll let you leave 30 minutes early or something like that if it’s important to go. You teach yourself to be on task. The future is closer, so you try to be prepared. There are some people that come here because they don’t want to be around that many people or got bullied or mistreated by some people and they just want to come here and get away.”

Mizdalo says the self-paced learning style works for her, as she’s seen her GPA rise 1.2 points in less than a year. After graduation, she plans to attend IUPUI to pursue a degree in marketing.

Fellow senior Alli Silvey echoes Mizdalo’s sentiments.

“When I went to Brownsburg my grades were so low I would have had to go to another school and transfer, but my grades are up so much I can go straight to a college now,” Silvey said. “You’ll fall in love with this school. You don’t get chances here, you get opportunities. It really is true.”

Senior Brooke Gentry said she made Cs and Ds at Brownsburg High School, but is now making As and Bs.

“I come in, do the work for myself,” she said. “I’m not forced to turn something in at this specific time. Like last quarter I finished a class before everyone else so I got to come in later. Being here has allowed me to make extra money. I’ve completely grown up since I’ve been here and learned responsibility in a better way.”

Student Elijah Smith had much the same experience. He attends Harris Academy, but plays on Brownsburg High School’s football conference championship winning team.

“When I came here, I had a 0.6 GPA on me,” he said. “Now I’m going to practice and telling all of my teammates that I’m done with most of my classes and they’re going through the same classes and I get to brag. It dramatically picked up my GPA.”

Smith said there’s a similar school in the Pike area. He has an uncle who teaches at Pike High School who told him about the academy here.

Some students commute from Avon or other areas, preferring the smaller classroom settings and self-paced curriculum.

Student Roberto Castellon admits that he originally has misgivings about the school.

“When I first heard about it, it had a bad reputation,” he said. “Everyone was saying that only stupid people go here. But when I came here, I found out that there are good students that go here because they want to graduate early and get away from the drama.”

Ah, the drama. Nearly every Harris Academy student interviewed for this article mentioned the words “no drama.”

An average class about 15 to 16 students, although they are all working at their own pace.

“Teachers really help you out more,” Castellon said. “They’re more one on one.”

Toddrah Carter from Avon said she felt lost in her former high school.

“Basically all of the administrators are more hands on with students and they worry about each and every one of the students,” she said.

Teachers at Harris also laud the self-paced program.

Shara Davis, who taught at Ben Davis and Carmel before coming here, said appreciates getting to know her students on a one-on-one basis.

“You feel like you’re really making a difference with these students,” she said. “It makes them grow up pretty quick because a lot of them do work 20 to 40 hours a week. That’s why so many kids are here, so they can work. They have that maturity level and that’s why we have a trust in them. So many of these kids are their own adult or are a parent. It prepares them to manage their time and get their work done and then go to work as well.”

English teacher Peter Battistini added, “Our classrooms are smaller, so the students are getting a lot of attention. We know where their weaknesses are in terms of learning, and we can gear lessons and attention to them to bring that level of learning up.”

Joe Reagin, a science teacher at the school, said the academy more closely mirrors a college atmosphere than that of a high school.

“Most of the time you’re in college, you’re doing most of the work on your own outside of class,” he said. “You’re self directed and self paced. At a normal school that has 30 kids in class, you’re going at one speed and kids that are really fast sit there and waste their time because they’re waiting for the next thing and the kids that are really slow get behind and never get caught up. Here, students can work at the rate they’re comfortable with and achieve success and build on that. The self paced model really makes a lot of sense for kids. They can get credits in a shorter amount of time here by working at their rate, and that’s another thing that will help them in college to be self motivated.”

Students at Harris have so much rope, there’s even a lounge where they can hang out.

Titus added that Harris has no desks, only tables, in an effort to give a team work style of environment where students get to know one another on their journey through school.

“We’re all on the same team,” he said. “That’s how we go about it and I tell them, ‘you ask young people at most traditional schools if you see an adult outside in the morning. Are they welcoming students or are they supervising?’ And they’ll tell you they’re supervising, almost every one of them. That’s not the way we do it here. It’s different. It’s why I don’t wear a tie. That’s why we have a lounge. There’s no detention here, there’s no Friday school. Those things don’t alter behavior. You’re attending Harris Academy to learn, period. I ask kids, ‘you ever go to Dairy Queen looking for tires?’ No? Why not? Because they don’t have tires. Then don’t come here to play or create drama.”

Titus said a class moving too slow for a student is just a detrimental to the learning process as a class that’s moving too fast.

“We’re about learning and moving forward here, not reciting stuff we already know,” he said. “That’s not learning. My daughter’s mom is a math teacher. She could have tested out of math that first day, but she sat in the classroom for 180 days time she’ll never get back, time she could have spent learning other things.”

And because everyone at Harris is there for the same reason, there are very rarely any discipline problems.

Titus also said disciplinary issues are rare, if ever. In his seven years there, only 4 to 5 students have ever been expelled.

About 90 students are on track to graduate by Christmas of this year. Some will move into the work force, while others will head to college.

Harris Academy is at 725A S. Green St., Brownsburg. For more information, call 852-1010 or e-mail Titus at btitus@brownsburg.k12.in.us.