Two years after dropping out of high school, Kaitlyn Burgess walked into ACCEL Day and Evening Academy not knowing what to expect. Three years after dropping out of high school, she accepted a $72,000 scholarship to Spring Hill College as a high school graduate.

As Burgess was starting her junior year at Davidson High School, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. She said there wasn’t a full-time nurse there to administer the emergency medicine she might need, and after having two seizures at school, she left.

“I really just gave up,” she said. “For two years I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

When she began pursuing a GED diploma, someone told Burgess about ACCEL, which opened in 2017 as Alabama’s first public charter school. If there is student who embodies the mission at the heart of ACCEL’s charter, it’s Burgess.

Backed by the Mobile Area Education Foundation (MAEF), ACCEL aims to serve high school dropouts and other “at risk” students by offering individualized instruction, smaller class sizes and a focus not just on academics, but also on students’ social and emotional well-being.

Superintendent Jeremiah Newell said the term “at risk” gives some the impression ACCEL is an alternative program for “bad” or “troubled” kids. In reality, he said, it’s a mixture of students who, for many reasons, need a more flexible schedule or more individualized attention.

ACCEL serves kids who are “at risk” too, but Newell defines the term differently.

“Every school, and particularly public schools, have ‘at risk’ kids. We have students who are homeless, students who are primary caretakers of their family, students who have families of their own, students facing chronic health issues — these are not unusual,” he said. “The difference is we’re saying, ‘We hope that you come’ and not, ‘You’re in our zone so we’ve got to do something with you.’ We’re trying to plan a school around those realities.”


Trailblazers

Austin Brown assists Samuel Dinkins, a student at the ACCEL Day and Evening Academy, during a class on coding. (Dan Anderson)

While the approach is different, charter schools are, for the most part, just a public school. The difference is they’re run by a nonprofit and are not governed by an elected school board. They do have a board, 20 percent of which has to be made up, by law, of the parents of students.

Students take the same tests, master the same curriculum and, in Alabama, will be held to the same standard when the state determines its annual list of “failing schools” next year.

Additionally, charter schools are also bound by their contract with the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, which outlines specific academic goals or emphasizes a specific student population. At ACCEL, the focus is on high school students who require flexibility.

Last month, 45 students graduated as ACCEL’s inaugural senior class, even though 20 would be classified as juniors and nine as sophomores based on their credits. For most people, senior year is marked by memories of longtime friends. Some might assume starting the year in a new school with classmates you don’t know would water down the experience.

Burgess said those people would be wrong. When she gave her speech onstage at ACCEL’s graduation, she had to choke back tears. She believes the experience of building something entirely new brought students closer together.

Newell said that’s why administrators emphasized giving students a sense of ownership in ACCEL and a voice in how it developed. From small things such as designing the graduation program to input on the elective courses offered, Newell said their voices were heard.

“So much went into supporting and building a strong school culture this year. Students didn’t feel like they lost something because they hadn’t been here for four years, it was much more a sense of pride for being the first,” he said. “These students really felt like they were trailblazers.”

As the name implies, the ACCEL Day and Evening Academy offers classes to during normal school hours, but also in the evenings and through online courses for students who need additional instruction or can’t fit into the standard 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school schedule.

Other students, like Burgess, are simply trying to cover a lot of ground quickly. She completed the 11th and 12th grades in a single year and earned a high school diploma, but it wasn’t easy.

“I was going to day school, night school and taking online classes,” Burgess said. “In my opinion, the work was more difficult than a traditional public school, but they give you the tools you need to do it. Teachers were actually helping us, not just sitting us down with a worksheet.”

One thing setting the coursework apart is competency-based learning. Newell said students move to new concepts when they’ve mastered the previous one, as opposed to progressing through subject areas based on grade level regardless of their grasp on the material.

“Some ninth-grade students took an algebra I course the entire year because they came in with third, fourth and fifth grade-level math skills. They just couldn’t master it one semester,” he said. “Others did it in one semester, then took geometry the next semester and are looking forward to taking algebra II in August. These are both true ninth graders, but their paths are different.”

Newell said around 80 percent of the instruction at ACCEL this past year was geared toward bringing students below grade level up to where they should be. The other 20 percent, he said, focused on pushing students who were already on task to the next level.

Carolyn Akers, CEO of MAEF, said she believes a large part of what makes ACCEL work is the counseling services underpinning what’s done in the classroom. The school has two full-time advocate counselors whose role is similar to that of a traditional school counselor.

However, the school also brings in licensed therapeutic counselors to work with students on any issues they’re facing inside or outside the classroom. One of them was Burgess, who told Lagniappe the counselors at ACCEL are a “huge part of what makes that school run.”

“I didn’t have the greatest home life, and just felt like I was having a rough time and needed someone to talk to,” she said. “They found that immediately.”

She said counselors were also instrumental in helping her with the administrative side of college admissions, including financial aid and scholarship applications. She applied to around seven colleges and said she was accepted to most of them, including Spring Hill.

After dealing with epilepsy at a young age, Burgess said she wants to be a nurse practitioner and focus on pediatric neurology. She wants to help young people going through what she did and worse.

“Neurology can cover such a wide variety of issues, and if you don’t start addressing these things when you’re young, they can progress quickly,” she said. “I don’t think I would have ever seen myself as somebody who would have even been interested the medical field before, let alone have the confidence in myself to pursue something like that.”


A year in review

The results of ACCEL’s first year are still being calculated, in some respects. It serves students in grades 9-12, who took the same ACT and pre-ACT tests required of other public school students.

Derrick Carson and a classmate working on a project during a STEM course at Alabama’s first charter school. (Dan Anderson)

Because it’s ACCEL’s first year, there’s not yet a state-calculated graduation rate, and when one is compiled, the process could be more complicated. That’s because graduation rates are based on four-year tracks, and ACCEL students enter at different levels and progress at different paces.

Though it wasn’t mandated by the state, Newell said ACCEL students took the Scantron Performance Series multiple times last year to measure progress. He said those assessments showed some notable gains in student achievement throughout the school’s first year.

“Eighty-two percent of our students are on track at this point to move on to the next grade level, whereas 80 percent of those same students were off track when they came in,” he said. “Forty-one of the graduates this year left college and career ready and had benchmarked on the ACT or WorkKeys. That’s about 91 percent, which I think is really strong for a first year.”

ACCEL’s first year didn’t occur without any growing pains, though. Akers said there is “a huge learning curve” to creating a school from the ground up.

“We’re building this airplane as we fly it,” she said.

As the first charter school in a state reluctant to allow them for years, ACCEL has been scrutinized, and that will continue as it goes through its first evaluation under the state charter commission in the coming months.

Akers believes ACCEL “got most of it right” this year, but not everything.

One thing administrators didn’t account for was how costly it would be to feed 200 teenagers every day. Because the school opened in the former ITT Technical Institute campus on Cottage Hill Road, there was no cafeteria.

Food is brought in every day through partnerships with local businesses such as Clarks Catering, Morrison’s Cafeteria and even places like Foosackly’s and Little Caesars. The students have loved it, but administrations have frantically tried to find a way to keep paying for it.

“I think that probably was our big misstep, and that’s why we own it,” Akers said. “We had to do what we had to do, and that included raising a lot of outside money to help soften that blow.”

Next year, the school plans to partner with a local school district to provide food through their Child Nutrition Program, which Newell said would provide significant cost savings. With no kitchen on site, though, ACCEL will always rely on outside food preparation.

ACCEL also struggled with some early student attrition. Its doors opened with 240 students last August, but around 39 left by the end of the first semester. While student attrition is common, 39 students translates to 16 percent of the student population.

“We originally set a goal of having about 85 percent of our kids retained. I think we’re a little bit closer to 75 percent this year,” Newell said. “That’s OK considering it’s the first year, but as a school, we’d like to see that improve. It’s one of our main targets.”

State school funding is calculated based on enrollment numbers in the first semester of the previous year, and that might be to ACCEL’s advantage if it only enrolls 201 students this fall.

However, Newell said the school plans to expand enrollment.

“We anticipate we’ll have more than 300 students next year, so it’ll be on us to figure out how to fund the school off of an allocation for 240. That’s going to be a challenge,” he added.


The politics of charter

Logan Searcy is the liaison between the Alabama Department of Education and the charter school commission, and despite the growing pains, she said ACCEL had a strong debut.

Dr. Jeremiah Newell, superintendent of the ACCEL Day and Evening Academy in Mobile. (Dan Anderson)

“It was a good year, and Mobile has a lot to be proud of,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure on them, and they’ve withstood it and done a great job.”

According to Searcy, the next hurdle for ACCEL is a thorough evaluation and audit by the charter commission this summer. She said a third party would be contracted to review ACCEL’s “academics, operations, governance, culture, climate and financial stability.”

There will also be a public report of the findings of that evaluation. Many people don’t know charter programs go through this type of review, though, and Searcy said there’s “a misconception on a lot of Alabamians’ part” that charter schools have no accountability.

“They have all the same requirements as any other public school, plus they have to meet what they’ve agreed to do in their charter contract. It’s a second layer of accountability that traditional public schools don’t have,” she said. “They have a five-year contract, and they can be closed down if they don’t meet those objectives.”

Opponents of charter schools say they take money away from traditional public schools.

Alabama spends around $9,000 per student annually, and if a system loses 10 students to a charter program, that’s about a $90,000 reduction in funding. However, Newell said that argument overlooks the fact that charter school students are public school students, too.

He also noted several of ACCEL’s students are dropouts for which no system receives funding.

Newell said misconceptions about ACCEL’s role in the community have been driven by “the politics of charter.” He said he’s been disappointed to see the mindset of “charters are bad, so this school must be a bad thing” locally — something he called “completely reductive.”

Akers said that type of political rhetoric can damage the perception of a school striving to meet a real need in the community. As someone who has worked with public schools in the Mobile County area for decades, she said, it’s also been upsetting to her personally.

“I do think one of the biggest obstacles has been misinformation about what we’re trying to do here, and a lot of it has come from people I worked with side by side for a long time,” she said. “The charter school legislation, for us, was a vehicle we could use to try something different.”