Charli Campbell, a senior at the Derby USD 260 Panther Learning Center, said the program changed his life and renewed his hope for the future. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)
Charli Campbell, a senior at the Derby USD 260 Panther Learning Center, said the program changed his life and renewed his hope for the future. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

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Charli Campbell had two life goals when he was 5 years old.

The first was to be a princess, but given the logistics of that, the second seemed more feasible: to be a musician, a writer, an actor — really, anything in which he could be a creator.

Somewhere along his time in school, though, that dream got snuffed out.

“When we’re at a very young age, people allow us the creativity to think, ‘You know what? I can be an astronaut and the president at the same time,’” said Campbell, now a senior at Derby High School.

“But as we get older and we start socializing more often, we learn the rules of society, and we start letting those restrict us more and more.”

He struggled in a traditional high school setting, which created anxiety during his first year at Derby. That snowballed into academic troubles, and by his senior year, he was a year and a half behind in credits.

Campbell was on the verge of dropping out — until he was referred to the newly opened Panther Learning Center.

“I had no plans to continue with school, and this was our last-ditch effort to get me back into it,” Campbell said. “It did what it was supposed to do. It got me back my motivation, and it made me realize I wasn’t as far behind as I thought I was.

“And I wasn’t as much — for lack of a better word — a failure, as I thought I was.”

Since it opened in January, Derby USD 260’s Panther Learning Center has been a place of last resort for dozens of students, some of whom have found themselves in the worst chapter of their lives.

But in the nontraditional educational setting, they’ve found hope, confidence and the voice for a new beginning in their lives, said Luan Sparks, director of alternative learning for the school district.

Lauren Jehle, a senior at the Panther Learning Center, talks with receptionist Sami Watkins. The center provides a more relaxed atmosphere to help put students at ease. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

Redefining alternative school as nontraditional

Students let go of any shame behind the walls of the Panther Learning Center, Campbell said, but it took Lauren Jehle a few weeks to figure that out.

Jehle had been a self-described recluse in the regular school environment, to the point of not eating or drinking during the school day. She was terrified of speaking, nervous that she would be judged by others. When she first entered the center in April, she never imagined herself being able to talk to her classmates.

Now the high school senior beams in talking about what the Panther Learning Center did for her.

“It’s given me a whole bunch of confidence,” Jehle said. “I’m in college classes now, and I was two years behind when I came here.”

“I’m in college classes,” she whispered again as she considered how the learning center changed her life. “And I only need two more classes to graduate.”

The Panther Learning Center was intentionally designed to remove shame from students’ lives, both in its construction and program design, Sparks said.

The center, which opened in late January, is connected to the high school through a set of controlled-access doors. But students, some of whom experience intense anxiety in crowds in the high school of more than 2,000 students, access it through a separate entrance. The center’s open, collaborative environment is designed to give students flexibility in choosing how, where and when they learn.

At the Panther Learning Center, we let go of (shame), and when we don’t have shame, we’re allowed to explore those ideas more in-depth and figure out what we do like and what we don’t.

Charlie Campbell, senior at the Derby Panther Learning center

Students at the center don’t fit into any one label, other than that they’ve struggled to find success in a traditional high school environment and someone has referred them to the center, Sparks said.

But it’s not for a lack of ability.

“For more introverted students, it might be socialization, and in reintegrating back into these structures, it’s been overwhelming,” Sparks said. “A lot of our students haven’t experienced academic success, but they’ve especially struggled through COVID, and they’ve become disengaged in their learning.”

Although the center is licensed as an alternative school, Sparks said that term is a misnomer, especially because it’s traditionally carried a stigma of students being inferior, or, as Campbell described it, viewed as “failures.”

“Nobody is born with shame, but we learn it over time,” Campbell said. “At the Panther Learning Center, we let go of that, and when we don’t have shame, we’re allowed to explore those ideas more in-depth and figure out what we do like and what we don’t.”

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A better term for the center is “nontraditional” education, Sparks argues. This year, the Panther Learning Center is serving almost 500 students through its academic credit recovery services.  It also has more intensive services for about 50 students through its student support program.

The center also offers credit acceleration courses and hosts spaces for the high school’s college-level health sciences courses and a WSU Tech college and career support office. 

Every two weeks, students work with the center’s staff to evaluate their academic progress. The Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas has an office at the center to help students and their families chart a path to success in school.

“It would be nice if we had cookie-cutter kids,” Sparks said. “But in this day and age, we have students who are impacted by a lot of things in their lives they have no control over. They can’t help it if a parent passes away, or if a parent loses a job. 

“Students don’t get to choose if they have a mental health condition or trauma that keeps them from being successful, and we have to give those measures of grace, in order to keep them connected.” 

Luan Sparks, director of alternative learning for the Derby school district, said the Panther Learning Center offers hope, confidence and a fresh start for students who’ve struggled in traditional education settings. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

‘Getting out of the students’ way’

At the Panther Learning Center, grace comes in the form of flexibility and plenty of leeway so students have the space and time to focus on their learning, Sparks said.

That could mean allowing students to work at their own pace and providing private study rooms where they can better focus. It could mean letting go of arbitrary rules against behavior such as eating or texting in class, or allowing students to leave the classroom to take mental breaks.

Mostly, though, it’s “getting out of the students’ way,” Sparks said.

That approach has raised eyebrows from other administrators who are used to more traditional learning environments and discipline systems, she said. Many of the students in the program have faced suspension or even expulsion before attending the center.

The key point she makes, though, is that the center looks to empower students to act responsibly, rather than enabling bad behavior.

Campbell echoed that sentiment.

“It’s giving kids the space and independence they need to be able to focus and learn,” he said. “I know it’s helped me personally, because I’ve never done better in a classroom setting. It’s because they let go of this traditional idea of discipline, and that gives you more breathing room.”

A new hope for students

By the time students are referred to Sparks to move to the Panther Learning Center, most have become disconnected from their school environments.

Not all students are accepted, she said, because the center has to be a good fit for the student. Sparks also makes sure the students understand that the first step toward getting back on track for academic success is showing up. The center’s staff works with students to reduce barriers to that, and the result is students who want to be at school, with those at the center showing up before the school day starts or staying after to work in a safe place.

“Our students have hopes and dreams, but just because they couldn’t get themselves inside the school or maybe they couldn’t get themselves to the place where they could be performing, don’t give up on them, and don’t draw judgment,” Sparks said.

“That might not be the best chapter of their lives right now, but when you keep reading is when you find out the essence of their whole story.”

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Campbell, after finally finding success in public school in his last year of it, has hope again for his future. He’s in the thick of midterms with newfound confidence in his academic ability.

“GPAs are definitely more accurate to the person here, because students are able to work within their own time and limits,” he said.

It’ll still be up to him to navigate the challenges of becoming a content producer, but the Panther Learning Center has helped him chart a path to his dream.

“(It’ll be challenging) developing an audience, and getting involved with the technical and business aspects of it,” he said. “But that’s why I’m in school, so I can take those classes and I can figure out how to set up a design, how to market myself, how to get sponsors and what I want my business to look like.”

His educational environment won’t be a barrier anymore.

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Garcia is an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon. He is a Report for America corps member.