LIMA — School children dressed in red, white and blue crowd around a small handheld video camera vying for the viewfinder. At Heir Force Community School, it’s time for multimedia class.
“If you just drive by this blue building, you wouldn’t realize all the love that’s in here,” Dr. Willie Higgens, director for the school, said from the doorway of the small classroom as he highlighted the school’s work during a building tour.
Walking through the school doesn’t take long. At Heir Force, the entire student body can fit into a small cafeteria. Higgins said that’s part of the school’s strength, but that size also has curbed the public’s knowledge of what goes on inside its walls.
Not every school needs to sprawl across acres. Some are hidden in plain sight.
While public and parochial schools tend to be the standard in local education, a few schools have found niches between the school districts, and as school choice gains ground, these schools are finding that some parents prefer something a little different, even if not everyone knows that they’re there.
Heir Force Community School
Every morning when a student walks into the front door of Heir Force, they’re offered a handshake and asked “How do you feel?”
The student’s response is the same every morning: “I feel like a champion.”
“We encourage our young people to strive for excellence,” Higgens said. “That’s the centerpiece of what we do day in and day out.”
For Higgens, the idea is to create a culture of success, and his school makes it clear as soon as one walks through the door. Inspirational messages and positive sayings dot the walls to remind students of their expectations. The space is open, clear and bright — despite the lack of windows — with smooth jazz playing lightly in the background.
After the morning handshake, students assemble in the large cafeteria, and they run through another routine. Instead of a morning announcement over the loudspeakers, Higgens and his staff offer students a theme of the day, such as a life lesson, to set the agenda followed by a reciting of the school’s motto.
“Today is a good day. I am a leader. I am loved. I am able to learn, and I will respect all,” is written on the wall in the school’s main room.
Higgens said the daily ritual is a way to get students on the same page and willing to work by visualizing and articulating their intentions for the day. The goal is to create a culture of excellence in the school.
“It’s a simple thing, but it’s unique to our school.” Higgens said. “It’s a thing that we do to celebrate our school culture.”
The size of the school is partially why the school can take such an approach. Compared to other schools in the region, Heir Force has one of the best teacher-student ratios, 1 to 18, and Higgens said faculty work to individualize the educational experience for each student. If someone is falling behind or acting out, the school institutes an “academic lunch detention” and faculty members often provide extra support to bring a student back up to speed.
“That says a lot. We’re here to see the kids succeed, and (staff) are willing to do whatever to make that happen,” Higgens said.
West Central Learning Academy
Classified as a drop-out prevention and recovery school by the Ohio Department of Education, West Central Learning Academy, on North Street, is a flexible option for students less comfortable with the standard brick and mortar high school.
In general, students who attend the school are looking to earn those final lessons post-senior year to earn a high school diploma, but Principal Melanie Nixon said some of the students that work through the curriculum are there because parents may be looking for other options for their children.
Compared to a typical high school education, WCLA offers a much different high school schedule. Students are required to come to the school only during half of the day to meet with teachers, and the rest of their work is done at home. To do so, each student is equipped with a Chromebook, and they work through material at their own pace. Because of the format, teachers provide lessons on a one-on-one basis.
“Our kids live life hard, and they need the flexibility,” Nixon said. “Some have jobs and work full-time.”
Like Heir Force’s building, WCLA is generally nondescript with a brick facade and no windows. But the inside of the small building has a unique layout — shaped like a honeycomb, with the high-ceilinged main room branching out into a number of hexagon-shaped classrooms. When the work period is over, students will cross the cathedral-esque main room to take up the next subject with another teacher in another room.
While WCLA may not have the same pomp as larger schools, Nixon said the school still provides students with the skills and education they need to succeed. Outside of the standard evidence-based curriculum, the school will bring in role models to help students figure out what they may want to do post-high school. After earning their diploma, the majority of the school’s students, Nixon said, end up entering the workforce, but the school does offer college-credit plus courses for those thinking about a degree.
“We do whatever we can to help kids. That’s our philosophy,” Nixon said. “Like any other high school, we focus on what they need.”
Golden Bridge Academy
On the second floor of the Golden Bridge Academy, a young boy stands outside of his classroom with a frown on his face. Director Karen Beard leans down and asks him a few questions.
“What’s wrong? Are you having a bad day?”
The boy shakes his head and stays silent. Beard may not have gotten an answer, but there’s a good chance she’ll find out. One-on-one attention between director and student is common at Golden Bridge Academy.
“You’ll always find me in the classroom,” Beard said. “We’re unique in that I know where every student is academically.”
Located on Market Street in downtown Lima, Golden Bridge Academy is the result of Beard’s 44 years in education. Instead of following the common trends seen in most schools, Beard sticks to what she’s learned during her time in the classroom, preferring to rely on a lot of hands-on experience to teach her students. Screen time is limited for each student. Field trips to the library, museum and ArtSpace/Lima are common. Worksheets come out to reinforce demonstrations, and teachers are pushed to show, not just tell.
Outside of academics, Beard said she also works with the students to develop emotional intelligence and manners to help prep them for adulthood.
As for parents, Beard said they are included in the larger process. As an example, she flashes her phone.
“I know the parents. They’re all in my cellphone. I text them all the time, and that’s fine with me,” Beard said. “Their kid is the most important thing to them, and I know it.”
Like other charter schools, Golden Bridge Academy is a smaller school. Class sizes are small — the teacher-student ratio is 23 to 1 — and the building, originally an office for a gas company, doesn’t lend itself to a typical school environment. But for Beard and her faculty, the student’s educational progress is of higher concern than the layout.
“We’re actually feeding the kids the love of learning. I have a passion for it,” Beard said. “What we’ve given some of these kids. It’s immeasurable.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.