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Miguel Quintana, 14, who was kicked out of McLaughlin Middle School for fighting says he wants to go to South Medford next year but would attend the Vibes Charter School at Kids Unlimited also. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Connections helps kids finish school

After Miguel Quintana was expelled from McLoughlin Middle School for fighting, he tried attending the expulsion program at the county juvenile detention center but realized he wasn't learning enough.

"I wanted to pass the eighth grade," said 14-year-old Miguel, who chose to be part of a small group of students attending a new alternative school at Kids Unlimited called Connections.

Launched at the beginning of January, Connections works not only to educate the students but to address the reasons they ended up expelled in the first place.

At the county detention center, expelled students attend class for two hours a day and are given a packet of schoolwork to finish.

Miguel said he liked the short days but knew that once he returned to his regular school, he would just get kicked out again.

"There is a huge deficit in addressing social and behavioral needs" of kids such as Miguel, said Tom Cole, executive director of Kids Unlimited.

Cole's organization worked with the Medford School District to form the alternative school, which focuses more on counseling and rehabilitation, less on punishment. Students expelled from their regular school are able to choose between the juvenile detention center and Kids Unlimited, which gets $27 a day per student from the Medford district.

Miguel was expelled for the rest of the school year for a fight he got into after another student made fun of Miguel's weight.

Connections encourages students to be accountable for what they did wrong and the reasons for the expulsion. It also works to convince students that there are possibilities for change.

"All of these kids have terrible self-esteem about how they see themselves," said Cole.

Most of the students in the program have an unstable home life, and people have talked down to them about their ability to succeed, Cole said.

"It's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said.

Miguel, who has been coming to after-school programs at Kids Unlimited since the fourth grade, said he gets one-on-one attention, and the program helped him to understand that bringing the irritation of his home life to school led to his discipline problems.

The 15 students in Connections are an example of one group that might attend a new charter school Kids Unlimited hopes to launch next fall.

The VIBES charter school, which stands for Vitality in Becoming Educated Socially, received a $55,000 grant from the Oregon Department of Education Jan. 20 and is in the planning phase of creating the school, which would serve 100 students in sixth through eighth grades.

The school won't just cater to students with disciplinary problems, though, and Cole says he hopes to keep both programs running.

VIBES still has to draft an application to the Medford School Board, which makes the ultimate decision on whether to approve the school.

Cole says that students transitioning into high school are at a pivotal point in their lives, and the current models of education are failing for an increasing number of students for a variety of reasons.

"You hope that the most amount of kids will fit into the traditional education model, but there are a greater number of kids who aren't able to succeed," Cole said. "Not just schools are to blame — our society is at fault."

Though Medford School District officials don't have an official stance on VIBES, they acknowledge charter schools' potential.

"Across the state there has been success with charter schools that serve a niche population, a group that isn't being served in their community," said Elementary Education Director Rich Miles, who will help make the decision on whether to approve the VIBES application.

Though VIBES will be a lottery-based charter school to which any student in the selected grades can apply, Cole believes it will gain the attention of certain populations of students, such as first-generation Hispanic immigrants and other minorities.

"You can certainly design your education model to attract certain families," Cole said.

Students in Connections can apply to be in the charter school, but the two programs will operate separately.

Miguel said he wants to attend South Medford High School next year but knows it might not work out for him.

"I want to try it out and if it's too hard for me, I will come back here," he said.

VIBES' application for the ODE planning grant called for an $810,000 budget the first year.

Money will come from an incentive grant from the state of $225,000 once the application is approved, and the rest will come from per-pupil revenue and other grants and donations.

The school will have a focus on technology and service learning and facilitate student internships within the community.

Reach Southern Oregon University intern Teresa Ristow at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.

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