Students who would have fallen through the cracks in Voorhees are being given a second chance at a pilot program.
The Eastern Learning Academy, located in the Echelon Village Shopping Center, is geared toward at-risk high school students.
Director of Special Services at Eastern Camden County Regional High School Mary Montgomery recognized some students were not motivated at school and were failing and so developed the idea to reach out to them.
“Our students are bright and we needed to find a way that they would come in and they would feel successful,” Montgomery said, so the academy, which is part of the Eastern system, was created.
The academy has 14 students, two teachers, a social worker, a job coach, and a classroom assistant.
Montgomery said the interest of most of the students is to graduate and get a job.
Students have academics in the morning and go into the community to work in the afternoon.
Businesses like Virtua Hospital, a local dry cleaner, and a fitness center have partnered with the academy to provide employment opportunities for the students.
The job coach shadows them at work and provides training. While the students start off unpaid some are now being offered paid positions.
Only in existence since September, the school teaches high school freshmen to seniors.
“It was a dream,” Montgomery said, noting she brought it to the attention of Superintendent of Schools Dr. Harold Melleby, the school board, and showed it to teachers.
She said they looked at all students and chose some to learn academics and vocational work without the distractions of a traditional high school.
“You walk in here at any time and the students are engaged,” Montgomery said. “Our students have been so successful that we are hopeful and confident that it’s a program that can continue.”
Chris Butler, who teaches English and history, has been a teacher at Eastern Camden County Regional High School.
“I think we’ve seen the kids blossom here,” he said. “Comparing them last year to this year I think it’s a 180 degree change.”
Joelle Chiappine, a teacher for 18 years, also taught at Eastern.
“Dr. Montgomery really fought for this program and it wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the belief in us and the students to make it a success,” Chiappine said. “I think it’s been a very positive experience for both the teachers and the students.
“I think that their attendance and their academics have definitely improved based on how it was last year and I’m hoping that it can grow,” she added.
Chiappine said she has worked with at-risk students in the past and found they need to be able to trust and be accepted by adults.
Job coach Robin Heckman helps students with their resumes and fosters self confidence and self worth while helping them land jobs in the area.
“We’re using the community around us as our classroom,” he said. Four students now have paying jobs as a result.
Britta Dekluyver, a social worker, said some students start off unmotivated and angry but come around over time.
“This is the perfect setting for students with emotional and behavioral concerns as well as academic concerns,” she said.
Jack Cargen, instructional aide at the school, said the most difficult part is connecting with students.
“Sometimes they have a hard shell,” he said. “Sometimes it’s tough to crack but deep down inside I think they’re really nice kids.”
Montgomery said one reason for the school’s success is the faculty’s commitment to the students.
“The success of this program is really due to the staff and the way they believe in the students; they’re the best,” she said. “If you believe in someone, anything’s possible.”