WINTHROP — There’s no “drama” in the trailer next to the tennis courts.

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.

Walther and a part-time education technician, Rebecca Armstrong, make sure the students stay on task and respond to any questions or requests for help; but they don’t lecture or set an agenda for the day.

Individualized education is at the center of the Carleton Project’s model, executive director Jennifer Walker said. In addition to Winthrop, the Island Falls-based school has a total of about 90 students at sites in Bangor, Houlton, Lincoln and Presque Isle.

Walker said that in some high schools or alternative education programs run by school districts, teachers might try to reduce the amount or difficulty of the work required. In Carleton Project classrooms, however, teachers help students understand their learning style and create tailored academic plans.

The students are allowed to decide which subjects to tackle each day and how they’ll prove what they’ve learned through projects. There are alternative credit options, including online courses or work done outside school.

“For whatever reason, these kids have not found success in a traditional classroom,” Walker said. “We have created an approach that seems to work very well.”

One thing every student must do is create a transition plan, which lays out what they’ll do when they graduate. Unlike a typical alternative high school program, in which the ultimate goal is a diploma, Walther said, all of her students must pursue some type of post-secondary education.

Ten of Walther’s students have graduated since the summer of 2010.

‘Wanting to go to school’

Walther’s students came to the Carleton Project from a variety of backgrounds.

Many had their high school careers disrupted by a move or problems at home. Several said they found out about Carleton by word of mouth from other students.

Liz Kenney, 17, said she and her mother moved to Monmouth from St. Louis so she could attend the Carleton Project. She learned about the program from her cousin, who also is a Carleton student and Gilbert’s boyfriend.

Kenney said she had been attending a Catholic school where wealthier students looked down on her and some teachers seemed unwilling to help her academically. She said she always has struggled with school, but the Carleton Project changed her attitude.

“I wake up in the morning wanting to go to school,” she said. “I work at my own pace and do different subjects. If I don’t want to do a certain subject that day, I can just work on something else. You eventually have to do all your credits.”

On a recent school day, Kenney was creating a personal collage to fulfill an art credit. She’d chosen the project over another one students sometimes do, involving writing a paper about famous paintings assembled in an online gallery.

Instead, Kenney cut images out of magazines to represent her life — such as images of orange juice and strawberries, which she likes to eat for breakfast; or a soldier, for the veterans in her family — and said she’d write an essay about the finished collage.

Like Kenney, Gilbert has found herself looking forward to school. There are only 16 hours of class time a week, but Gilbert said she’s working as fast as she can to finish her credits. She’s eager to start a pre-apprenticeship that will put her on the path toward becoming a cosmetologist.

“I want to get my diploma,” she said. “I want to start adult life. Yeah, I mean, there’s taxes and bills, but why be afraid of that when you’re stable and you have a good job?”

Anthony Ridley, a senior from Monmouth, was working on a science laboratory activity relating to mass and density. He has left his two science credits for the end. They’re all that stand between him and his diploma.

Although he has to work on his least favorite subject every day, Ridley is motivated to finish his diploma and the massage therapy certificate he’s started at Spa Tech Institute in Westbrook.

“I like the fact that I’m actually going to college and doing something,” Ridley said. “Before I came here, I didn’t know what I was going to do. And I turn 20 in April, so I needed to figure something out.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
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