February 3, 2013

'No-drama' alternative program engages once at-risk high school students in Winthrop

Carleton Project is a private school that partners with five school districts across the state

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WINTHROP -- There's no "drama" in the trailer next to the tennis courts.

click image to enlarge

Teacher Evelyne Walther, left, works with students Rachel Gilbert, of Winthrop, center, and Ben Langley, of South Monmouth, on Wednesday in the Carleton Project building in Winthrop.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Students leave the Carleton Project building in Winthrop after the school day is over on Wednesday.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Additional Photos Below

The absence of social hierarchies, group infighting, romantic entanglements and generalized teen angst is one reason the students in an alternative high school program called the Carleton Project say they're performing better than they did in a traditional high school.

The Carleton Project is a private school that partners with five school districts across the state. This is its fourth year in Winthrop, where 11 students from Winthrop and Monmouth are attending school in a portable classroom on the same campus as Winthrop Grade School and the Town Office.

Being separate from Winthrop High School is key, said teacher Evelyne Walther, because many of the students were bullied or struggled socially at their high schools, which put them at risk of leaving school altogether.

Rachel Gilbert, a 16-year-old from Winthrop, said that since transferring to the Carleton Project last summer, she actually enjoys going to school because everyone gets along and there's no "drama."

"It's hard to focus when you think all of these people around you don't like you," Gilbert said. "Or you just want to get high school over with when you have drama, because you just don't want to be involved with it anymore."

Gilbert said she had trouble fitting in at Winthrop High School after moving from New Jersey a year ago. She estimated that she missed 70 days of school and said she probably would have dropped out.

Winthrop's Carleton Project was recently at risk because the organization's board thought it was not getting enough support from Winthrop Public Schools. The Carleton Project leadership put an enrollment freeze on the Winthrop program in the fall, which is why there is a waiting list, even though only 11 of 18 spots are taken.

Winthrop School Board Chairman Ike Dyer said the Carleton board objected to Winthrop providing the program with older laptop computers and a photocopier that didn't work. Wather's request for supplies was turned down as part of a general spending freeze.

"None of the things were insurmountable, but there was kind of a perception that the Carleton Project wasn't getting the attention it should have," Dyer said.

Dyer and Walther drove to Houlton last month to advocate for their program before the Carleton board. The Winthrop school board may vote this week on a memorandum of understanding agreeing to fix the problems. If it's approved, as Dyer expects, Carleton will lift the enrollment freeze.

Dyer said the Carleton Project is good for Winthrop Public Schools, the community and especially the students, who become successes instead of dropouts. He praised the work of Walther as an educator, mentor and confidant to the students.

"She's probably become a lot more than just a teacher for some of them -- probably the father confessor, the bail-me-out, guidance counselor, you name it, the whole nine yards," Dyer said.

Kenney said that without the Carleton Project, she probably would have dropped out of school by now.

"A normal high school is very difficult, and you've got to worry about friends and their drama and school and work and your life at home and everything," she said. "It's just too much stress. But here you can just let everything go. This is like home. People feel like it's a safe place."

A different environment

The Carleton Project's classroom is a quiet place furnished with a couch, a few tables and rows of folding, padded seats like the ones in movie theaters.

On a recent school day, the students worked on their own, typing on laptops or reading from textbooks. Several listened to music with headphones, which Walther allows because it helps them relax and block out distractions.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Teacher Evelyne Walther, standing, works with Liz Kenney, of Monmouth, as Anthony Ridley, of Monmouth, works on his own on Wednesday, at the Carleton Project building in Winthrop.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Liz Kenney, of Monmouth, left, works with teacher Evelyne Walther on Wednesday at the Carleton Project building in Winthrop.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan


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