Alternative program connects with students who don’t fit a mold

by Mick Rhodes |

Ask any parent of multiple children: though the ingredients may be the same, kids always turn out different from one another.

Even twins can fight like caged animals over the smallest of things, and aptitudes and tolerances can and do vary wildly from child to child.

So why do we toss them all into the same box when it comes to school?

And what if that longstanding American model—up at 6 a.m., off to school at 7:30, lunch at noon, out at 3 p.m., extra-curriculars, dinner, homework, and in bed by 10—isn’t working?

What if a student or family is in crisis, and the traditional educational track is temporarily counterproductive?

Since 2011, Claremont Unified School District has had a successful, robust alternative in place for these intermediate and high school-aged students: online independent study.

“It’s an alternative program for students that are having some issues and aren’t fitting the mold, for X or Y reason,” said Felipe Delvasto, CUSD’s Senior Coordinator for the program.

Typical IS students may be dealing with social, emotional or behavioral issues, elite athletes competing at the state or national level, or children whose parents are in a division of the military that requires frequent travel.

The program is web-based, with students required to be in the “lab” classroom at the district office once per week for three hours to check in and/or take tests. All of the material is aligned with California educational standards requirements.

Independent study is just that: when a student enrolls, Mr. Delvasto evaluates his or her transcripts to determine what classes are needed and what level study is appropriate. If it’s a high school student, graduation is the priority. Middle school students take math, English, science and social science courses.

Classes are then chosen, and work is assigned. The major difference lies in that the onus is completely on the student to turn in work on time, and how he or she manages their time is up to them. It’s a sink-or-swim proposition for kids, and though not everyone succeeds, it’s remarkably empowering for many.

“They complete their work any time of the day,” Mr. Delvasto said. “It’s funny, when I run my reports I see students log in at this time or that time. It’s very revealing. Teenagers work very well after 10 or 11 o’clock at night.”

If a student can’t get to school in the morning due to some sort of physical, emotional or behavioral barrier, it doesn’t mean he or she can’t do the work, Mr. Delvasto said.

“But in our traditional system, if you’re sleeping to nine o’clock in the morning, you’re already late to two or three classes,” he said. “You’re already having issues. This has opened options to students who function better at that time.”

The IS program is highly selective. Typical enrollment fluctuates from five to 40 students per semester, based on need. Mr. Delvasto was adamant that independent study was not designed for kids who don’t want to get up in the morning. It’s solely for students and families who are in some sort of crisis.

The district frowns upon long term IS enrollment for this reason. Students are registered one semester at a time and re-evaluated regularly on a case-by-case basis, with the overarching goal of transitioning them back into traditional school.

“We have a big philosophy [at CUSD] that schools are more than for learning English, math, history and science,” Mr. Delvasto said. “Schools are environments where kids grow and learn about life overall.

Teens and pre-teens need to develop life skills, time management, and learn to navigate the ups and downs of their budding social lives, he said.

“And it’s not all glory,” Mr. Delvasto said. “They need to be able to experience failure as well. Because that is preparation for what it is to be an adult.”

In short, being in the school environment can help young people to learn emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and socialization—in ways that online learning may not be capable.

“School is a mini-training camp for all of adult life,” Mr. Delvasto said. “So when you remove all those items, we’re really doing a disservice to the kid.”

Mr. Delvasto’s tenure at the helm of CUSD’s IS program has also paid dividends for his own family. When his daughter was a junior at Claremont High a couple of years ago, she had “some challenges.”

“It was a fight in my house every night, a constant argument,” Mr. Delvasto said. “When she came into this program, I think she felt that, ‘Oh I’m in charge of this.’ And I think it developed this sense of ownership, of responsibility. I think she grew a lot. And again, I found out she’s a great writer at 11:30 at night.

“Everything got better, the issues were addressed, and after a semester in the program she said ‘I’m ready to go back to school.’ I think it was a growing experience for all of us.”

Mr. Delvasto was born in Bogota, Colombia in 1974. As a teenager he escaped the ultraviolence of the cocaine-fueled drug war in the late 1980s and moved to the US to live with his sister, who was already here.

Two weeks later he was a junior at Claremont High School. He spoke no English whatsoever.

“The reason I wanted to become a teacher was because I felt so overwhelmingly welcome at Claremont High as a student,” Mr. Delvasto said.

He graduated from CHS, went to Citrus College, then Cal State LA, where he earned a degree in Spanish. He returned to CHS and taught Spanish for five years.

“It’s the best feeling anybody could have, to be a teacher, because this is what you can do for somebody,” he said. “So I became a Spanish teacher.”

He then earned his master’s degree in administration at the University of La Verne and landed a job as assistant principal at CHS, and then at San Antonio High. He’s been running the district’s alternative education program for seven years now.

“Those first few years at Claremont High were so great for me,” Mr. Delvasto said. “They developed a sense inside me of being able to do something for kids.”

Mr. Delvasto may be the penultimate advocate for the district’s IS program, and not just because it’s his job.

He’s been both the beneficiary of and now the benefactor for non-traditional public school education, right here in Claremont, and he’s not about to forget it.

“When we were at San Antonio we had the motto, ‘We reach ‘em before we teach ‘em,’ because we really believe that you need to make a connection with a kid before you can do anything,” he said.

“It really is such a relief to see when a student gives you that smile that says, ‘Oh, you understand what I’m talking about. You understand that I need to finish my high school but I don’t speak any English. Help me.’”

The parallels are plain; Mr. Delvasto grew up with the anxiety of living in the epicenter of a country where murder was commonplace and lawlessness was endemic. He came here with nothing—not even language—and availed himself to the help that was offered. Then he worked hard and made a life for himself and his family.

“It’s not just my story,” he said. “So many people go through this. After all, this country is made out of immigrants.”


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