MARQUETTE - Tony Parlato can't stand the idea of a one-size-fits-all educational plan.
For years Parlato, the supervisor of the Marquette Alternative High School, has given special treatment to every kid who has walked through his door.
"We go on the assumption that no two students can be served the same way," he said.
From left, Zahra Black, Kari Wirtanen, Dylani Mathis and Victoria Carlotto play a history game in their history-geography class at the Marquette Alternative High School recently. (Journal photo by Danielle Pemble)
Historically, schools have divided education into general education classes and special education classes, but kids come to Parlato's school for many different reasons.
Some can't maintain focus in a regular class. A number of them have anxiety issues. A few hate English class, while others hate math. And many just feel they don't fit in. Parlato can't bring himself to treat a group of kids that diverse as though they are the same.
"For us, it is all special education, in that everybody has their own challenges and everybody has their own way of learning," he said. "To not acknowledge that makes everyone's job harder."
At MAHS, most classes contain students of all grade levels, from freshmen to seniors. Though the content is largely the same across the board, the expectations for each student differ, based on age, ability and area of interest.
If a student is particularly skilled in one area of expression, the teachers try to focus the lessons through that medium. And if students are uncomfortable doing a specific project or assignment, they are able to suggest alternatives.
In addition, the classrooms often bear a close resemblance to living rooms, with couches lining the walls of some. It is occasionally difficult, at a glance, to differentiate between the teacher and the students.
"The hardest pitch is to students who haven't been trained to do that. They've all been trained to sit in rows and be quiet," Parlato said. "And that is not where learning takes place. That is where obedience takes place."
Though his approach is unusual, Parlato feels it is imperative to give students control over their academic experience. It can change not only how those students perform in school, but how they feel, both about academia and about themselves.
"People will give you a lot of reasons why you can't do things," Parlato said. "I only need to hear one reason why we should do it and it's impossible to argue. That's because it is good for kids."
After struggling with his grades, especially in math, junior Jake Bourdage came to MAHS at the beginning of the school year.
"I was nervous at first, but I love it. You can be yourself, you can move at your own pace," he said. "You get to take responsibility for your learning."
Though he initially wanted to get his grades up and return to Marquette Senior High School, Bourdage now plans on staying in MAHS until graduation. That type of response is common among students.
"I feel comfortable being here," said junior Kaylee Hassell. "Everything is different. I have more of a connection with my peers and my teachers know who I am as a person, not just as a student."
In addition to the students, parents have also been pleased with the work being done at MAHS.
Marquette Area Public Schools Board Trustee Laura Songer attended MAHS's recent parent-teacher conferences and reported to the board on March 29 that numerous parents told her their students would not still be in high school without the MAHS program. Less than a year removed from the shift to the former Graveraet Intermediate School building, the enrollment numbers in Parlato's school have nearly doubled - from 65 students a year ago to about 120 today.
Even with the growing enrollment numbers, Parlato focuses on the little things, which he feels can make a big difference. For instance, students in his school aren't tied down by many typical institutional rules, like bans on wearing hats, eating in class or chewing gum.
"You might have adolescents worried about bad breath. If chewing a stick of gum-even if they are going to stick it on the bottom of the desk-is going to make them less anxious, I'll buy them the gum," Parlato said.
"I mean, is it really worth holding or creating these rules that have nothing to do with learning?"
As an administrator, Parlato is wholly unconcerned with educational dogma. The most important thing is providing the best possible education to a group of students that - like every group of students - is entirely unique.
"Whether people want to face it or not, the kids coming through this generation are a different style of kid," he said. "And to continue to try to teach them through the same traditional 1950s-style schooling is doing a great disservice to our community."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is email@example.com.