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Dougherty County's Regional Achievement Center is not a detention center

Dougherty County's South Georgia R.A.C. is a facility designed to get students back on track with education

The leadership team of Dougherty County’s South Georgia Regional Achievement Center, featuring Robyn Cawthon, Tijuana Burroughs, Anita Jenkins, Tonya Grant, Ethelyn Lumpkin, Brenda Morrow, Samuel Black, Ben Johnson, Marrion Flowers, Cleatus Hopkins and principal David Hamilton has helped create an environment where the county’s students are able to overcome obstacles and learn to value their education. (Staff photo: Brad McEwen)

The leadership team of Dougherty County’s South Georgia Regional Achievement Center, featuring Robyn Cawthon, Tijuana Burroughs, Anita Jenkins, Tonya Grant, Ethelyn Lumpkin, Brenda Morrow, Samuel Black, Ben Johnson, Marrion Flowers, Cleatus Hopkins and principal David Hamilton has helped create an environment where the county’s students are able to overcome obstacles and learn to value their education. (Staff photo: Brad McEwen)

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David Hamilton, principal of Dougherty County’s South Georgia Regional Achievement Center, or R.A.C. school, wants the community to know that the school is not a prison, but a place where students are given the opportunity to learn about the value of education. (Staff photo: Brad McEwen)

ALBANY — Renowned educator and author Ignacio Estrada wrote, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way we learn.”

That seems to be precisely the mindset of the educators at Dougherty County’s South Georgia Regional Achievement Center or more commonly, R.A.C. school, as they work to help students in the Dougherty County School get back on track and learn to value learning.

The R.A.C. school has long been known as the system’s alternative school where students with discipline problems are sent when they have to be removed from the classroom for a variety of reasons.

While that certainly plays into what goes on at the school, current principal and long-time Dougherty County educator David Hamilton wants the community to know there’s more to the school than that.

In fact, changing the public perception of the school as a place for unteachable or bad children was one of Hamilton’s top priorities when he became principal.

“A year ago when I started as principal here I was determined to change that image,” Hamilton said. “I wanted people to see this place as a school. We’re not a prison, we’re not a step away from the YDC (Youth Detention Center), we’re not a babysitting service to move people up to the next grade level. We are a school and we are here to teach them how to learn.”

Teaching students how to learn is likely the best way to describe the mission of the R.A.C. school. In the eyes of Hamilton and the rest of the educators at the school, the vast majority of the students, for whatever reason, did not value school prior to attending classes at the R.A.C. school.

Citing examples like turmoil in the homes of the students and each student’s different learning styles, Hamilton explained that the school’s success lies in the fact that the teachers there believe if they look for every way possible to reach the students, they will be successful.

“There is nothing wrong with these kids,” Hamilton said. “Kids need to see and understand. They’re not slow, there’s not a reason they can’t learn. It just hasn’t been presented in a method that’s understandable to them. If you put things in terms they can understand, they can learn it. If you put it terms of something that’s valuable to them, they can understand.”

In other words, Hamilton feels it’s the job of the educator to use his or her expertise to figure out a way to help the students see value in learning and in succeeding in school; which is something he feels the staff at R.A.C. school has been able to do because Dougherty County has allowed the school to focus on the ability of the teachers first and foremost.

“I’m happy to tell you that every single teacher in this building is highly qualified in their field and we have no one teaching out of field,” Hamilton said. “We don’t have paras running classrooms, we don’t have long term subs running classrooms. We have certified teachers in their field.”

In addition to the quality of teachers, Hamilton said another success of the school has been it’s ability to run a variety of different programs that aid students of different grade levels.

The programs that the school is most known for is the Phoenix programs for county middle and high school students that have encountered discipline issues at their home schools.

Students who are a part of the Phoenix programs have, for a variety of reasons, gone before the school system’s disciplinary tribunal and been sent to the alternative school, where educators there try to uncover the reasons for the disciplinary issues and work with those students to overcome obstacles and keep them focused on completing the necessary course work to stay on pace so that when they return to their home schools they will not be behind their classmates.

Hamilton said the reasons students end up in the program are numerous and included things like fighting, bullying, possession of drugs or alcohol, among others.

Often, Hamilton asserts, the students have gotten involved in these things due to circumstances outside their control or because they had lost focus on learning.

“The Phoenix programs are our largest programs,” Hamilton said. “Three hundred and seventy-two out of the 511 students here are in Phoenix. There’s 221 high school students and 151 middle school.”

Hamilton said that 150 of the Phoenix students passed their classes for the third nine weeks of the year and he considers that a success, although he concedes that it would be unrealistic that all of those students are able to pass and transition back to their home schools immediately.

“I’d love to be able to put ourselves out of business,” Hamilton said. “But that is unrealistic. The truth is, we have some kids that come back. What we don’t want is a revolving door.”

Even though the R.A.C. school is not able to help every student in the Phoenix program get back on track, many do and many more students in the school’s other programs are able to achieve tangible success around learning.

In fact, it is not only the successes of the other programs, but the fact that those programs exists is something Hamilton and the faculty want the community to understand.

“One of my main objectives when I came here was to welcome the community and show them what we do here, to reach out to the community,” Hamilton said. “This school is uniquely different. The community really doesn’t know what we do. The mere fact that this place exists shows the concern of the Dougherty County School System. These programs are important.”

Unbeknownst to many in the community, the R.A.C. school offers Elementary Alternative Education Programs (EAEP) for third and fifth grade students. The two EAEP programs are accelerated learning programs designed to get students who have fallen two years behind back to their proper grade levels.

For example, the students who complete the third grade program leave the school and return to their home schools as fifth graders. The students in the fifth grade program would return as seventh graders.

The school also runs an accelerated program for middle school seventh graders known as PALS or Partners of Alternative Learning for Students.

Students in the PALS program are also two grade levels behind and after completing the program are ready to begin ninth grade.

Hamilton said the PALS program, which is administered by Robyn Cawthon, is one of the school’s most successful programs. A great majority of the students who complete the program are able to graduate from high school.

“If they are successful they leave as ninth graders,” Hamilton said. “Dr. Cawthon, the kids who have been in her program, if they finish her program, 85 percent of her kids graduate from high school within four years. That’s an amazing number. What she does is tremendous.”

It’s teachers like Cawthon, Hamilton said, that are responsible for the success of the alternative school. Time and again, Hamilton praised the hard work and dedication of the faculty, giving them credit for the school’s accomplishments.

“I have an unbelievable staff,” Hamilton said. “I’m lucky to be surrounded by great teachers. Here we have old school teachers. The type of teachers that constantly stay with the students and encourage them to keep trying. They care and they do different things to reach the students. They are the teachers who won’t give up on the students.”