Outspoken and relentless advocacy has and will always be my commitment to each of our heroic students.
Robert L. Eichorn
Principal, New Directions Alternative Education Center
Q. What got you first committed to education? Are you still committed for the same reason?
A. Bob: It all started with service, and the commitment remains to this day. At a young age, I wanted to help others excel and ultimately achieve their goals. This started with my peers through community service, school activities, and athletics.
During my middle and high school years, this transformed to purposeful mentoring and support for younger learners. I was fortunate to be able to volunteer at a center for students with intellectual disabilities. This gave me my first glimpse into learner-centered education and the impact one teacher can have on one student. Ms. Parker, my 7th grade English teacher, personalized learning for each student in our class. She created an academic stage where all students could direct, act, produce, and edit based on their unique skills, interests, and perspectives. In retrospect, I believe my middle school experience is where the seeds of my calling and mission were planted.
In high school, disenfranchised, at-risk, and challenged students tended to gravitate toward me. I was encouraged by my sophomore English teacher, Mr. Sengstack, to tutor students who were struggling in class.. This changed my trajectory of service. I always garnered a great deal of personal satisfaction when helping others. I realized through this experience that each person learns in a unique and individual way; therefore, my service had to adapt and focus on how to best help my peer progress—at their own pace and based on their specific needs. This is when I believe my commitment to education as a discipline began to take root.
As I embarked on my post-baccalaureate journey, my good fortune continued at James Madison University. It was there that substantial growth occurred for me as a person. Walls were smashed, perceptions reformed, and horizons expanded as a result of relationship building and the focus on strategic partnership with others to learn.
Based on what I was given, fast forward 30 years—the result has been that I am able to reimagine education with my students, my colleagues, and my schools each day, month, and year. I believe our experiences, rather than form us, allow us to reform. As a result, I have been fortunate to grow in my service. My core belief is that our nation’s most socio-economically challenged, emotionally in need, and intellectually starved students deserve the best schools, teachers, and support services. When provided with a learner-centered approach to service, which in my estimation is the foundation for a world-class education, our students become self-sufficient, confident, and motivated life-long learners. They turn despair to hope, happiness from sadness, and mold failure into success. As an alternative educator for 26 years (with decades of service yet to realize), outspoken and relentless advocacy has and will always be my commitment to each of our heroic students.
Q. How did New Directions evolve?
A. Bob: When discussing the evolution of nontraditional or alternative schools in the United States, the majority were formed and remain focused on an exclusionary “last-chance” model for students removed from traditional school settings as a result of disciplinary infractions. An antiquated and frankly broken approach to education, this structure at worst creates student warehousing with a “sink or swim” mentality.
During the 1990’s, I was privileged to learn from Teresa Zutter, the Director of Nontraditional Education Programs (retired) in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). She promoted a learner- and teacher-centered approach for service provision for our most in need and at-risk students and those that served them. As a result of this foundational support and vision, I was able to collaboratively develop a host of schools and programs during my tenure in FCPS that created a system where personalized learning, skill development, and stakeholder resilience were developed and valued.
My growth in service continued when I was appointed the Principal of New Directions in January of 2008 in Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS). Arriving to a “last-chance” model in its third year of infancy, I was very optimistic. Why? After speaking with the school community, it was apparent the students and staff wanted to eliminate barriers, create opportunity, and develop a unique school culture. We needed a vision, a path to fulfilling it, committed internal and external adult stakeholders, a revolutionary technology plan, and mechanisms for assessing ourselves and our students.
We developed student and faculty leadership teams; revised scheduling based on student needs at school, home, and community; created time for students and staff to collaborate; and established a culture of authentic recognition for personal and school achievements. In addition, we established internal student and staff mentor programs, a host of academic clubs and activities, and partnerships with local community and four-year colleges.
Our evolution included developing a comprehensive digital learning program, an individualized portfolio assessment learning model, and academic remediation and accelerated opportunities based on the needs of each student. Due to rolling enrollment, we revised our transition process, which includes free summer school to complete classes, enroll in courses for credit recovery, or earn new credit toward graduation.
We reflect on our evolution annually with an emphasis on change to support our students in a strategic and purposeful manner. As a result, our enrollment is now 70% elective placement, and graduation rates have increased 300%. Since 2008, New Directions will have graduated over 1,000 students in our traditional program and another 1,000 through our virtual scholarship program. This opportunity affords economically disadvantaged base school students the opportunity to take virtual classes free of charge while remaining in their “home” school. During this period, the On-Time Graduation rate of PWCS has gone from 83% to 91.4%. Ultimately, visionary leadership at the division-level allows for transformation at the school-level. Our PWCS Superintendent, Dr. Walts, has been instrumental in encouraging innovation, a catalyst in supporting alternative school redesign, and purposeful in changing the public narrative on alternative education in our community.
We needed a vision, a path to fulfilling it, committed internal and external adult stakeholders, a revolutionary technology plan, and mechanisms for assessing ourselves and our students.
Robert L. Eichorn
Principal, New Directions Alternative Education Center
Q. We know that learner agency is a foundational piece of the New Directions’ model. Can you talk a little about what this looks like in action?
A. Bob: We recognize learners as partners in the development of our school. At the individual planning level, this includes student ownership with course selection, individual schedule creation, and participation in academic clubs and associated school activities based on interest or need. Mid-quarter or semester adjustments can be made based on student activities at home, employment responsibilities, access to technology, or service to the community. In addition and key to the model, mid-course adjustments are made based on student performance. This includes strategic remediation and acceleration sessions during the traditional school week with an emphasis on meeting the student where they are from both an effective and affective learning perspective.
New Directions operates using five master schedules to accommodate a host of learner needs and hand schedules each student. With a rolling enrollment of 750-800 students on site, another 200 in a virtual format, and a subsequent 300 served during summer, our school supports the annual learning for over 1,000 students.
In the classroom, students are afforded with assignment choice, flexible pacing based on learning style, and opportunities to complete assignments based on prior knowledge and mastery. Access to classes based on language development, special needs, interest, and fit/match with a teacher is incorporated based on the initial (and, most importantly, the developing) needs and successes of the student.
Students drive extra-curricular programs and excursions, which include creating agendas for learning, justifications for activities to meet their needs and those of their peers, and creating new programs based on interest.
Q. Your Student Services Department is nationally recognized. Tell us what makes them so central to New Directions?
A. Bob: Everything we do revolves around student and stakeholder service; therefore, having professional school counselors that partner as facilitators of learning with classroom teachers is integral to our ability to develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions in our students.
This partnership is integral as, along with the integration of student voice, it allows us to create a “one voice” approach at New Directions through a unifying vision. Our professional school counselors take the lead in developing academic opportunities, co-teach with our professional educators, and plan school-based events that address the needs of the whole learner. This integration into the learning environment allows for each professional school counselor to better engage with parents and the community, as it relates to the needs and services available for students.
The work of Ms. Jones, Ms. Morrow, and Ms. Fermo is proactive school counseling. Our team engages in research on each student to understand the past, better inform the present, and create opportunities for future achievement. Our professional school counselors engage in a comprehensive orientation process, which not only sets the tone for a new student but also serves to provide the blueprint regarding our innovative teaching and learning strategies and the role each student plays in our further development as a school.
This research-based approach to school counseling service also takes the form of assessment coordination out of our Student Services Department. This serves multiple functions regarding alignment and support of student and teacher needs as it relates to state assessment preparation, scheduling, and remediation. Ms. Jones, our Lead School Counselor, collaborates with staff to develop effective and supportive schedules based on the needs of all stakeholders. This strategic approach places the “academic” in school counseling and defines shared ownership in student achievement.
Our professional school counselors lead our Northern Virginia Community College Pathways to Baccalaureate and George Mason University Dream Catchers programs. These 2- and 4-year college partnerships provide our students with access to university mentors, admissions assistance, and additional academic counseling support upon enrollment.
Q. We know that you are in the process of expanding. What will this new and improved campus allow you to do that you can’t do now?
A. Bob: October of 2016 promises to be groundbreaking in more ways than one for nontraditional students in Prince William County Public Schools. Three nontraditional schools, New Directions Alternative Education Center, PACE East, and New Dominion Alternative Center, are set to merge in a state-of-the-art, three-story high-tech facility scheduled to be completed in 2018.
The campus, which will be located at the intersection of Joplin and Aden Roads in Manassas, will contain a comprehensive media center, gymnasium, multi-purpose stage designed for the performing arts, and full-service cafeteria.
Planned with input from all three schools, the campus is designed to maximize academic access for secondary alternative and special needs students. Flexible scheduling, advanced placement classes, accelerated and remedial courses, as well as Career and Technical Education (CTE), are just a few of the opportunities that await students in the new facility.
Designed for increased growth, academic equity, and a learner-centered approach to services, the new campus will also have a comprehensive school counseling department, student clubs and academic activities, and athletics. The design includes multiple computer and science labs, an art studio, and an outdoor greenhouse. Classrooms will be outfitted with the latest technology to support 21st century learning and skills development.
Services designed to assist middle school and special needs students to effectively transition to high school and subsequently on to career and college are part of the comprehensive campus plan that includes an accredited alternative school. Students will benefit from a year-round education model that will afford opportunities for summer enrichment, remediation, and acceleration to meet graduation requirements. The physical and academic design will be the first of its kind in Virginia.