Alternative school hosts career fair
BY AMELIA HARPER
Thursday, April 18, 2019
Students at Tar River Academy looked to the future on Wednesday as they spoke with potential employers, military recruiters and college representatives during Career Day at the school.
Helping these students prepare for the future is the goal of Tar River Academy, the only alternative school in the Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools district. But this is not a typical alternative school, which merely acts as a “holding cell” for troubled students and those that face special challenges in their lives, Principal Willie Howard III said.
“This is a place of second, third and fourth chances,” Howard said in an interview on Wednesday.
This is the first year as principal for Howard, who has served as the principal of other alternative schools in places like Union County Public Schools, where he last was employed.
“The other schools where I served were similar but not the same,” Howard said. “This is something special here. It is two schools in one. We have a middle school for grades six through eight and a high school. But the high school is set up in a way that the kids who we accept here only need 22 credits to graduate instead of 28. This is part of the philosophy of this school district. We want to see kids be able to grab that diploma and most of our juniors and seniors want to graduate.”
Finding a way to accelerate that process is important to these students, who have had setbacks in the past. Some have criminal records and about 10 percent of them already are parents themselves. Some already have jobs as they are living on their own with no one to care for them. Some are 21 years old.
Many of their stories are heartbreaking, Howard said.
“When you hear some of their stories, you have to be inhuman not to care,” he said. “Some days you still see the residue of what they have gone through in the past.”
The school has about 95 students, though the numbers vary because of the transient nature of the school population. The school has a low student-to-teacher ratio and plenty of support staff in the form of counselors, social workers and behaviorists to help with the students in the school. The school also offers a “U-Turn” program that provides strong interventions and mentoring to help students find their way and stay in school long enough to earn their diploma.
The school’s mascot is the phoenix and the symbolism is obvious and profound. One of the bulletin boards at the school bears a quotation by Anne Baxter: “It’s best to have failure happen early in life. It wakes up the phoenix bird inside you so you rise from the ashes.”
Another board at the school has the words “Still I Rise” across it. On that board are several anonymous stories written by students at the school that share an obstacle they have overcome. Some took wrong turns in their early teens by joining gangs or selling drugs so they did not have to be dependent on their parents. Some were pregnant in their early teens and some already have lost babies. Others have overcome long bouts of depression or ill health that set them back from achieving their dreams at the same pace as their peers.
But many of them show evidence of that phoenix rising inside them.
A young woman recounted the story of her circumstances and the wrong choices she had made and then concluded, “Don’t get me wrong. I still have a lot of growing to do, but I’m going to take it day by day. I am proud to say I love the young, independent woman I am becoming.”
Other students shared the challenges they still face.
One student whose father got in trouble with the law and was deported wrote, “Since then I had to take care of my lil brother and sister as my own. I usually buy my lil brother school shoes and sometimes take him out to eat cause I know my dad is not here anymore and he would want me to look over them.”
Others offered wise advice to their fellow students.
“If I can say any words it would be choose the people you wanna be friends with and actually have someone you wanna trust and open up to — Choose the people you hang around wisely,” she said.