Learning about life is just as important as core classes at Olympia Learning Center, an alternative school for students expelled from their home schools. Small-group discussions introduce students to those skills and help make them better citizens.
By Sarah Martin
March 31. 2015
Brothers Johnathan and Keanu Pridgen aren’t like the other students at Richland 1’s Olympia Learning Center, most of whom have been expelled from their home schools. The high school seniors say they chose to be there because Olympia is teaching them more than geometry and grammar – it’s teaching them how to handle life.
Character education workshops at Olympia, held twice a month as part of a program that began this past year, are an important part of that.
“I’ve learned tips on what to do and what not to do, to not let the small things get to me,” Jonathan said. “You got to get rid of negative thoughts and think positive.”
“I’ve learned that when I see drama or chaos, to turn away and mind my own business,” Keanu added.
Guidance counselor Eugenie Parker, who helps plan the character education discussions, said that by getting the students into small groups and encouraging them to talk about conflict resolution and anger management, they’re better able to overcome bad influences and stay out of trouble. Olympia’s teachers and counselors facilitate those meetings with worksheets focused on specific character traits to help guide the discussions.
“It teaches them the simple idea of ‘do unto others.’ Our students have good character, so how do we prepare them to be good citizens?” Parker said.
Parker said she recognized the need for character development when she came to Olympia in August after about eight years at A.C. Flora High School. Beyond the basic guidelines of the Common Core curriculum used by Richland 1, she thought new material was needed.
Aubrey Sejuit, a therapist who worked with at-risk youth in Syracuse, New York, and is now pursing a doctorate at the University of South Carolina, said character education is important “to teach children what it means to be a good citizen and what it means to interact with peers appropriately.”
It’s especially important, she said, for children who come from low-income communities and single-parent households, which Parker said is common for Olympia’s students in grades six through 12 who often work or take care of younger siblings.
Sejuit said such chldren have less exposure to character development from their parents.
Columbia clinical psychologist Joseph Boland said, “Kids don’t need the latest Xbox as much as quality time with parents, who model and reinforce skills and development.”
But when parents can’t be there because they’re working, character development can be important, said Boland, who specializes in behavioral family psychotherapy.
Parker said it isn’t always easy to pinpoint each student’s needs or why they were expelled. And there is the added community perception they are bad kids, she said.
“The way I look at it, these are our kids from our schools,” Parker said. “We have great students here, with great faculty and staff that are proud to be a part of this program. Every day I walk in, I feel rewarded to be here.”
The Pridgen brothers said they decided to attend Olympia when they heard that Ericka Hursey, an assistant principal at Lower Richland High School, was transferring to Olympia as its principal. They said she had a positive influence on them at Lower Richland and that they wanted to continue to interact with her at Olympia.
Keanu Pridgen said Olympia’s positive environment also helps keep them out of trouble.
“I learn a lot here, and I do good here,” he said. “It’s a better environment, and I get better grades and have a positive attitude towards things.”
Olympia has held discussions on anger management and control, how to recognize unhealthy relationships, hygiene, goal setting and conflict resolution, Parker said.
While many schools hold small-group discussions similar to Olympia’s, students’ needs are different in each place, and Olympia’s program is too new to adequately measure its success, she said.
“We don’t always know the impact of our help on students until years later, when they come back to visit and say they went to college, or are successful in another way,” she said.
As he and his brother stood in front of a large mural depicting students studying and interacting, Keanu Pridgen said Parker inspires him because she wants to make sure he graduates and is prepared for the real world.
Johnathan said Hursey, the principal, has taught him that his history and background don’t dictate who he is. He said he is considering joining the military or earning a psychology degree.
“She taught me just because you grew up in the hood doesn’t mean you have to bring the hood with you wherever you go,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be who you are. You can get out, and it doesn’t have to characterize you.”
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