by KIM HILSENBECK
Recently, the Hays Free Press reported on two Lehman High School students who were placed at the school district’s Impact Center for streaking down the field in their underwear. They got 120 days.
But what do most parents and community members really know about the Impact Center?
Some may think it’s a place where “the bad kids” go. That has a ring of truth. Ending up in the Impact Center is often the result of unacceptable behavior.
But Principal Sylvia Villejo said, “Most of the kids here just made a mistake.”
The Impact Center is a DAEP: a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program. Villejo has been the center’s principal for 10 years. She started in 1998 as a math teacher.
“People see the movies and they think it’s just going to be this horrible place,” Villejo said. “And they kind of get shocked when they come out here.”
“Out here” is on FM 967 in Buda, west of FM 1626. It’s made up of a cluster of buildings, many portable, that sit atop the highest point in Buda.
“We really tried to eliminate all of that feel and look [of being a horrible place]. Everything is neutral, even the uniforms [the kids] wear,” she said.
All the students wear white-collared polo-style shirts and tan pants.
Villejo talked about the high school and middle school programs as she led a tour of the facility.
“We really focus on academics,” Villejo said. “They can bring grades up because there is nothing else here.”
Students at the Impact Center cannot participate in school sports or clubs. The class size is extremely small; most have less than 12 students.
Right now, the center has the maximum 80 high school students; half of the 54 middle school slots are filled.
The length of time a student must be at the Impact Center varies; school administrators have a little leeway, though, in some cases, there is mandatory placement based on the offense(s) committed.
Villejo developed Iguana Credit Days – a point-based system (with a nod to the campus’ mascot) to help students get back to their home campus sooner. They earn points for good behavior, doing their academics, wearing their uniforms and showing respect to staff.
To earn an Iguana Credit Day, Villejo said students must earn 95 percent of their daily points for a week. That equates to one less day at the Impact Center.
But when she first pitched the idea years ago, the administration’s sentiment was very different. Villejo said the philosophy was, “They need to do their days.”
“The district really has evolved with the positive behavior system that we have in place,” she said.
Villejo said about 97 percent of the kids who come through the Impact Center want to go back to their home campus.
“They’ll say, ‘Miss, I like you, but I want to be out of here,’” Villejo said.
But not all of the students who come through the Impact Center want to go back.
“There are others that are very comfortable here because of the structure, because of the relationships we build with the kids,” she said.
According to Villejo, some students do better at the Impact Center, which has a structured, safe environment where students receive personal attention. Small class sizes allow teachers to connect with students.
Those connections are a key reason why Villejo considers the program successful.
Villejo credits Sandra Merten and Robert Kenyon with much of the center’s success. They were two of the first teachers. Merten is still there; Kenyon is now leading “The Ranch,” a separate program on the same campus for very special needs students.
She said they get a wide spectrum of students from across the district at the Impact Center.
“I have parents who have very little support for their kid to parents who are really involved – maybe overly involved – and I have kids that are from special education to Gifted and Talented,” Vallejo said.
“In the last few years we’ve seen more females come through which was, at first, shocking. But it’s still about 88 percent male,” she said.
Villejo said she thinks it’s because boys are more impulsive.
She attributes the increase in females at the center to what girls see in popular culture.
“I know people don’t want to hear this, but I think it’s the TV shows, the music. That’s just my own opinion. They see these women fighting on TV and they think that is cool and that’s how they are supposed to act,” Villejo said.
“They think they’ve got to be mouthy,” she said. “It used to be a boy thing, where they would say, ‘He disrespected me.’ Well, now I’m hearing the girls say it.”
She and Hays CISD spokesperson Tim Savoy agree that some of the kids at the Impact Center could have benefited from early intervention and mentoring.
“A kid needs someone to talk to that they can feel safe with,” Villejo said.
Savoy said Hays CISD will focus on getting mentors at the Impact Center.
“Research shows that mentors make a tremendous difference in whether a kid is going to get in trouble again and stay on the wrong path,” Savoy said.
Villejo said she has seen some repeat assignments; she estimated maybe one percent of the students return-sometimes because they want to come back.
She said students will say, “It’s the only way I’m going to pass my classes.”
Dave (not his real name), a Hays High School senior, spoke with the Hays Free Press about his experiences at the Impact Center.
He is at the Impact Center for selling snacks at school and because another student accused Dave of assaulting him.
“I was selling chips to people who didn’t even want them,” Dave said. “They said I could make a career of it.”
How did he react to being placed at the Impact Center?
“I wasn’t, like, upset ’cause, like, it’s not that bad. Well, like, I’ve been here before,” Dave said. “I think this is my fourth time.”
He first came to the center in seventh grade after a series of disciplinary referrals.
“That time I didn’t want to, like, come [here] because I thought it was bad,” Dave said. “But it’s not.”
He said he’s not doing things on purpose to come back; however, he said it’s easier at the Impact Center because it’s more structured.
“They help you more than they would at, like, the home campus,” he said.
Dave thinks college might be in his future; maybe ACC first and then Texas State, perhaps to learn about being a salesperson or even to become an orthodontist. He believes it’s an easy job because they get to sit down while they work.
He admits he is kind of the class clown – always trying to make people laugh. Has he thought of becoming a comedian?
“Yeah, I was thinking of that, too,” he said.
“He could be,” she said.