Dr. Rickermann’s team creates a non-traditional learning environment | Education

When it comes to education, it’s a different world at the Farmington School District’s Dayse Baker Learning Center (DBLC), where Dr. Mike Rickermann presides over his fourth year in what he calls a “non-traditional learning environment.”

Rickermann’s official title is director of student options and alternative programs, but he doesn’t like to call his curriculum an “alternative.”

“I try not to use the term alternative school because it has a negative connotation; that’s where the bad kids go,” he said. “That is the furthest thing from the truth. What we’re comprised of are the kids that don’t have success in a general education environment.

“There’s a myriad of reasons for that. Typically, misbehaving is a mask for a bigger problem. That could be educational, home life, it could be a million things. There’s that stigma; that you’re dealing with bad people or dangerous people. You’re just dealing with kids that don’t adjust well.”

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The students in the learning center range from grades 3-12. Three to four programs are running at one time with some overlap.

“We have three classrooms that are like a general education classroom with the hourly switch like a regular classroom but just small numbers, 6-10, that’s mainly grades 7-12,” he said. “I have a program called ‘Missouri Options,’ which is an alternative graduation. It’s for kids that are way behind academically.

Taking the challenge and reaping the results

Students participating in the non-traditional learning program offered at the Dayse Baker Learning Center help out at a recent veterans breakfast as part of their service learning.

Mark Marberry

“They culminate by taking the HiSET, which used to be the GED. We service a lot of seniors in that program. We have a partnership with BJC Behavioral Health which services our kids in grades 3-8.

“We have a teacher and two paraprofessionals that do the educational piece, usually about three hours a day with a group, then that group switches over and works with five workers from BJC that are onsite daily, they do individual and group therapy with the kids. I have a social worker that is on staff full time. She does behavior groups and social groups with them twice a week and individually with a bunch of them.”

According to Rickermann, there is another classroom with all high school kids that originally had substance abuse problems.

“Rather than them being at home on suspension, we provide an environment where they can come to school with some parameters and provisions and still stay on track grade-wise,” he said.

Rickermann’s primary focus is on providing a safe environment by supporting socio-emotional wellness and regulation in a personalized setting.

“We can’t have success with education if we don’t have a baseline of the socio-emotional and a kid feeling safe coming to school,” he said. “They don’t fit in that box. It’s no fault to the other staff, the people in the other buildings want these kids to be successful, but they don’t know how to help them.

“They don’t have the resources where we can spend one-on-one attention with the kid, and they have a classroom of 30 where one kid can be domineering, and it tends to bubble up on both ends and end badly.”

For many of Rickermann’s students, that “normal” life can be just too much in what he calls the general education buildings. That’s where he steps in.

“We are able to eliminate the noise that a big building brings; I’m talking about distractions, outside influences,” he said. “If you have a kid that is sitting in a 10th-grade classroom that reads on a third-grade level, is he going to let everybody know that he can’t read, or is he going to act like a jerk to get himself out of this situation, so he doesn’t get embarrassed?

“We step in, take care of that kid and bring them back to their level and then raise their level and build their capacity to deal with both ends of it, educationally and socially.

“Another noise level can be social media stuff. Kids get so tied into drama. Some kids, especially if they don’t have a good foundation at home, live and breathe in that drama and chaos. They can’t get away from it. That becomes their every day, and they can’t focus on the educational side and focus on their own well-being. We eliminate that.”

Rickermann says they don’t do anything much different education-wise from the rest of the district. They are just surrounding the kids with other kids that are similar to them.

Taking the challenge and reaping the results

Students are had at work in the Dayse Baker Learning Center’s non-traditional learning environment. According to Dr. Mike Rickermann, the program is able to eliminate the noise, distractions and outside influences found in a large building that allows them to create an environment where the students can succeed.

Mark Marberry

“My kids are real empathetic,” he said. “We are very deliberate in where we place kids. Every time we get a new one, I sit down with my staff and go through the background of the student coming in, and we talk about our different groups and where we think that kid will be most comfortable and which our groups would be accepting of what that kid is bringing to the table. I defer to my staff a lot on that because they are the ones that have to do the hour-to-hour work.

“After two weeks, we cycle back and review if we have made the right choice and what behavior they are showing and how it’s going and see how things are. Sometimes you get kids that get behind the eight-ball in high school and have a bad freshman and sophomore year. They can’t catch up and feel that there’s no hope. It’s almost like clockwork. The first four to six weeks, they get nothing done. They have given up. Then they start seeing some kids around them progressing. It’s like a light goes on, and they start rolling.”

Rickermann employs a rule to reduce outside distractions that might be considered controversial and unworkable for students today — no backpacks and cellphones during the day.

“Before any kid starts with me, we have a sit down with parents and the kid, and we go through everything getting the nuts and bolts,” he said. “The initial reaction from the kids is the eyes get big, and the parents are almost celebratory. A parent doesn’t want to tell a kid they can’t have it. I get it from the parent’s side, too. I have a 20- and 18-year-old. They both have had phones at school. They also knew when it was class time, the phone goes away. These kids can’t separate. They don’t have the capacity and the discipline.

“One girl, the dad said he didn’t know if it was going to work. She’s going to buck on this. She was going to start on a Monday. I told her, and she wasn’t really in on it. I took her for a walk into one of her classrooms, and my kids were very welcoming. The girl walks in on Monday morning and asked if she had to turn her phone over to me now. She volunteered it. I said no, in first hour, your teacher will take it and lock it up down there.

“It becomes them instead of me. It puts that ownership back on them to make the right choice. Surprisingly, we don’t get any pushback on it. We really haven’t. It has really leveled off a lot of the nonsense that can take place. You really have to pull that layer back and take that option off the table to allow them to focus. Most of my kids live in a world of chaos and have a hard time focusing on what’s best for them.”

Cutting off that social media and offsite distractions through cell phone use has been something that Rickermann has been thinking about doing for a long time.

“I’ve been on the whole gamut of it,” he said. “Before I came here, I was a high school principal at De Soto for four years. I was middle school principal at Windsor for six years before that. In the middle of my middle school time is when phones became a real thing. I have trial and errored a bunch of stuff. It’s like you open the doors, and you can’t shut them back up.

“It took me a while to get there here, to just be hardline. This is where it’s going to be. The older the kids, the tougher they struggle with it. It has to be consistent across the board. If they walk down the hallway and one class has their stuff, you’re going to have a fight on your hands. If a kid feels like they need to call their parents, go ask, we’ll get your phone out, and you call your parents, it’s no big deal.

“We are transparent with the why. We sit down with each class and explain why we are doing this. Our work production is going up. Our behavior issues are going down. However, let’s be realistic. It is easier for us to police. If I were sitting in Dr. LaMond’s shoes in the high school, it’s a whole different conversation. They have 1,200 kids, and my kids are with one or two teachers all day. It’s not apples to apples, but with this personnel and population, it’s been crucial to what we’re doing.”

This year, Rickermann is trying a new program — one he calls “service learning,” where students go into the community to interact with others on a social level. Some of his charges recently assisted the school district with the Veterans Day breakfasts at the civic center.

“We have to be selective about what we do,” he said. “I do have some challenging kids. I thought they did a tremendous job. I was selective in who I took and gave them an opportunity, and they would be successful. We go to Habitat for Humanity every Monday. I send five to eight kids over there to work on houses.

Taking the challenge and reaping the results

Students participating in the non-traditional learning program offered at the Dayse Baker Learning Center help out at a recent veterans breakfast as part of their service learning.

Mark Marberry

He planned to have students read stories to kindergartners and pre-k kids. 

“Part of it is having a purpose, having meaning, and feeling like you are doing something that is worthwhile. This is us structurally giving them something that they can be proud of and that they did. It’s a confidence builder. We practice everything we do. Before breakfast, I met with the kids. I made sure they dressed appropriately. When they were going to be meeting with veterans and senior citizens that don’t often interact with teens, my experience is they like to tell stories, and the students may not understand everything they are talking about, but they’re going to be respectful and engage.”

When dealing with students in a non-traditional setting, Rickermann finds that every day is different. Every morning as he watches the students come in, he can tell what kind of day they will have.

“I can see when they come in the door who we are going to have a good day with and who I need to keep special eyes on,” he said. “You may not know why, but you see it. We know our kids very well because we have a smaller population.

“When the kids have class together all the time, they kind of pod off in groups based on interests, and when one has a problem, that problem will tend to spread through the whole group because they share everything. Our kids may not know each other when they start here, but outside they start doing stuff together on the weekends, start pooling together, which is kind of a good thing.”

The non-traditional setting often requires an immense amount of close supervision to succeed. Progress is sometimes lost with any long-term breaks — something that Rickermann and his staff try to avoid when possible.

“Last year, when the district went to the hybrid schedule, we did not,” he said. “We stayed five days a week. I went to (Superintendent) Matt Ruble and said that I couldn’t. When my kids have long breaks, when they come back, it’s a disaster to get us back on our feet again. They go backward because of their chaotic home life. Thanksgiving, Christmas, I don’t look forward to those breaks because it’s challenging to start back up.”

To prevent disruptions that may cause the students to regress, it is rare that the school will bring in a substitute teacher when a regular staff member is out.

“Substitutes are tough when I have somebody that doesn’t know our kids, and the kids know they don’t know them. We really work hard not to have any subs. We try to manage within because it’s not fair that a sub is coming in blind, and it’s not like a traditional classroom you’re walking into. Change is tough for anybody, and with kids that don’t have coping strategies to deal with it, it’s even tougher.”

Unfortunately, some students simply don’t succeed and flourish. There is the occasional kid who just doesn’t make it.

“I hate to say it this way, but we have 100% failures when we start with them,” Rickermann said. “That’s why they’re here. To expect to have 100% success out of 100% is not realistic. We have some kids that given an opportunity to succeed, they chose not to take it. That percentage is dropping every year. More often than not, when a kid gets transferred to me, it’s not voluntary.

“Our message is always really clear to them: Unless it’s a strict safety issue, I never bring up what they did in the past. We start talking about the present and the future. I tell them that they have two choices, you can be angry and make bad choices, or we can turn the page and start moving forward.

“We go through several layers. If plan A doesn’t work, I’m going to have B, C and D that we are going to get to depending on where ‘A’ takes us. Do we have some that don’t make it? We have a couple that don’t make it. I could give you 50 different reasons as to why, but it comes back to no stability at home and no support externally, and they are just not able to accept support and help.

“Our kids, when they start with us, have real big trust issues. It takes a while to take their walls down and accept us. I will tell anybody; we have great kids. We have great kids that have tough lives that we have to be adjustable and work on.”

It’s interesting that, in general, Rickermann’s students tend to be very creative. It was a definite surprise to him when taking on this role.

“I never ever once as a general education administrator really bought into the art therapy type of thing as being a therapeutic outlet,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how much it is. Whether it be physical art or music, the kids gravitate to that. It centers them more than you would think. I would never have made that connection. Last year I got to hire a teacher with an art background; that was her certification and to give us somebody to support that with some substance.”

When asked about students who have stood out after completing one of his programs and going on to graduate, Rickermann says that there are just too many standouts for him to mention.

“In four years, probably 50 of them,” he said. “This has been an eye-opening experience with me with my background. After being a building administrator for 15 years before doing this, I did my run as a disciplined person. The growth I see out of the kids here, graduation is a special day. Last year I had a sixth-grade kid that couldn’t read kindergarten sight words. To have them come down and read me a third-grade story, to some people that should be done, but if you see where they start and where they go, it is unreal.

“Having the small number of students that we have, the attachments you get to them, it’s pretty strong. The growth you get to see on a daily basis is huge. Kids will always meet the expectations where you set them. If you set low expectations, they are going to meet them. They’re not going to get any higher. If you set high expectations; they are going to meet them. They may trip along the way, but they’re going to get there.

“The Missouri Options Program — you talk about kids that walk in here as 17- and 18-year-old kids that have four to six credits and no hope of graduating — for us to give them hope and for them to take advantage of the opportunity and see it through, to see them and their parents emotional because they thought they were going to be high school dropouts, you can’t beat that.”

Mark Marberry is a reporter for the Farmington Press and Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3629, or at mmarberry@farmingtonpressonline.com

“If plan A doesn’t work, I’m going to have B, C and D that we are going to get to depending on where ‘A’ takes us. – Dr. Mike Rickermann

Dr. Mike Rickermann on education plans

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