On Monday night, parents, students, teachers and advocates gathered at the Community Services Center for a small ceremony to celebrate big accomplishments.

Over the past semester, several local students passed through the center’s Virtual Academy program through Garden City USD 457, a version of the program available since the fall 2017 that offers structure, one-on-one help and additional group sessions to students suspended or expelled from school. Monday, five of the roughly 20 students that have taken advantage of the program so far stepped forward to receive recognition for their achievements, and three accepted certificates of completion.

On Tuesday, those three, no longer suspended, will return to Garden City High School or the Virtual Academy.

For several students, the Virtual Academy experience was better than expected.

Sebastian Diaz, 16, said he liked the setup better than a traditional classroom. Teachers were always on hand to help, and the online format allowed him to move at his own pace.

Pedro Ramirez, 14, said just coming to class every day made the semester go by quickly.

“I didn’t think they were going to care. I thought it was just going to be an in-and-out, like get done and nothing matters, you just go back to school. But, they actually care,” Ramirez said.

Caring comes naturally to the staff, said Amanda Medrano, a prevention officer and educator at the center’s academy.

Medrano’s a mother of four, she said, and she brings a similar maternal approach to her teaching. Students come in wanting nothing to do with the program, but as the months pass, many begin to get more engaged. The kids warm up to her and the program, and she gets attached right back, she said.

“A lot of times when the kids come in, they have a sense of failure because they were kicked out of school and they were kicked out of (the USD 457 Therapeutic Education Program). So, they come here with that negative mindset, like, you know, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ ‘This is not for us,’ ‘I don’t want to be here.’ But, here at the Virtual Academy, we understand those feelings. We try to understand our kids, and we try to be there for them,” Medrano said.

Beyond the classes, the program offers group sessions dealing in external subjects relevant to life outside of school. Students sit in on sessions on drugs and alcohol prevention, anger management, bullying and media awareness, among others.

When it’s time to go back to school, Medrano said, many say they’re ready.

The program is still new, and the long-term effects of the program are still in flux, said Lucas Sullivan, assistant principal at Horace Good Middle School and liaison between USD 457 and the center. But, the value was clear, he said. Instead of leaving kids to fend for their education themselves for six months to a year, it gives kids structure and a needed second chance.

“I think a kid that gets expelled has a higher chance of not graduating, has a higher chance of probably getting in more serious trouble down the road, and I think this is just an intervention that prevents being put in the system as an adult," he said. "And it helps them have a better chance of graduation because at the end of the day, we’re trying to prepare these kids for life after school and getting across that stage at Garden City High School … This gives kids a lot better chance to have success when they return."

As the ceremony wound down, Katrina Pollet, executive director of the Juvenile Detention Center, applauded the students’ work.

“This goes to show you how succesful you really can be, because you are extremely successful with us. So, we have great hopes for you, and so does everybody in this room because we know you can do it,” Pollet said. “And if you ever need us for anything, you can always come to our door and let us know. We’re here to help you.”


Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.