Live Oak offers students an alternative

By Kim Hilsenbeck

(Editor’s Notes: This two-part series will look at parent and community reactions to Live Oak Academy, Hays CISD’s non-traditional high school; next week, students and graduates talk about their experiences and how Live Oak impacted their lives. The cost per student will also be discussed.)

Choice. Alternative. Non-traditional. That’s how Hays CISD describes its Live Oak Academy, an alternative education school of choice.
Some community members on Facebook said things like “Last chance school”, “waste of resources” and “low rigor” when asked to give initial their perception of the school.
But many disagreed.
One commenter said Live Oak was, “A second chance that kept many of my friends from dropping out all together.”
Another Facebook commenter wrote, “Live Oak Academy is for students who aren’t interested in extracurricular activities and want to focus more on their education.”
“My perception is that it’s where troubled students go to learn at their own pace and hopefully get a diploma. However, there doesn’t seem to be the same push for students to attend and actually graduate,” was the comment from someone else.
So what is Live Oak Academy all about?
Enter Michael Watson, the school’s new principal. Hays CISD hired him after former principal Julie Ruisinger retired last school year.
Watson brings to the table a background not just in education, but in alternative education. His dissertation at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, “Bad Kids Gone Good: A Narrative Inquiry Study of Alternative Education Graduates,” was on that very topic. He found that while alternative education structures may differ from district to district, the programs “are typically characterized as smaller schools that offer a flexible design of schooling that focus more on individualized instructional methods compared to the focus of traditional schools.”
Beginning in the early part of the last decade, education experts focused much time and attention on raising high school graduation rates and helping students to earn their diplomas. The term alternative school of choice surfaced.
Watson wrote in his May 2014 dissertation, “there is evidence to suggest that students who fail to graduate from high school are more prone to seek assistance from government programs such as welfare, commit crime, and experience health problems as compared to students that graduate from high school (Alise -Young & Chavez, 2002: Rumberger, 2004; Rumberger & Thomas, 2000). This issue has captured the attention of various stakeholders in education in an effort to keep students in school until completion, in order to avoid such negative outcomes for the nation and the students that dropout (Hemmer, 2011). The students that have are garnered this attention are labeled as at-risk.”
That label still applies for many Live Oak students, but not all.
Students must apply to Live Oak Academy, which opened in 2000. Assistant Principal Doug Agnew said they make an effort to take as many applicants as they can, but sometimes the fit may not be right once they get to the interview phase of the process.
“But we want to help as many students as possible,” he said.
In fact, Agnew and Watson are on a campaign to recruit more enrollees. According to Watson, the school can handle about 140 students. Enrollment was 80 three weeks ago. Over the next week, he said he received more applications.

Watson arranged a meeting with current students as well as interviews with parents and a few graduates. Many students and graduates described Live Oak as welcoming, supportive and almost like a family.
Several of the students are dealing with personal issues, such as anxiety, ADHD, ADD, home life issues and more. All agreed Live Oak was the best choice for their situation and learning style. Part II in this series will share their stories.

Kyle Mayor Todd Webster, whose daughter Elizabeth, 17, attends Live Oak, said the school gives parents an option.
“Every kid that goes there is for a very different reason,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.
He knows a thing or two about education. Webster served as chief of staff at the Texas Education Agency and at one point was the acting commissioner of education.
“I think Hays is ahead of the game in providing this option,” he said. “The district is being responsive to what the community needs. Parents like me are looking for something for their children.”
Webster said a traditional public school setting was not a good fit for his daughter.
“Live Oak is the kind of place that will meet the kid where they are and properly personalize an academic plan for that student,” he said. “A traditional setting is not the right thing for every kid.”
He said in his experience, “The Live Oak teachers are extraordinarily student focused and fl exible. They look at each kid individually.”
Webster emphasized that attending Live Oak is not easier; assignments must be redone and teachers hold the students accountable for their work. He said he would encourage parents and students to at least look at Live Oak.
“I’m very happy with Live Oak and it’s a valuable asset to the HCISD community,” he said. “A whole bunch of kids could benefit from going there.”

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