When he isn’t monitoring his students inside, sometimes Kevin Mabe can be found outside, walking along Mizpah Road, picking up errant soda cans and paper cups in front of Ashley Chapel Educational Center.
It’s Mabe’s 23rd year in education — his first as principal at Ashley Chapel, Richmond County’s “alternative school” — and he’s working hard to model the kind of positive action his school’s behavioral policy dictates.
“We try to make it as family as we can,” said Mabe, who has a nice, round Dad-like voice and a ready smile.
If “family” means everyone picks up trash to keep the school nice, Mabe picks up trash. If it means taking charge of a backpack of dirty laundry a student brings from home, Mabe washes the clothes.
If it means buying a black hoodie inscribed “ACEC” for each student at the school over Christmas, he and the staff find a way.
Which may not be what some people think of when they ponder a school that can be a last chance for students who got into fights or consistently smarted off to the teachers at their home schools. Where’s the toughness? Where’s the discipline?
“It’s a second chance for a lot of kids, and they know that,” Mabe said Monday of the school, which houses 60 to 80 students at a time, with 200 rotating through each year. “This is kind of like Second-Chance High.
“You get to see a lot of bad, but my favorite thing is the smiles.”
Students come to Ashley Chapel from the county’s middle and high schools, the Ninth Grade Academy and even Richmond Early College. They must maintain acceptable behavior for at least 90 days before returning to their home schools, focusing on positive behavior.
Despite that emphasis on the positive, the school has doled out 185 out-of-school suspensions so far this year. That’s down from 413 at this time during the 2014-15 school year, when the school population was twice as big.
And then, there’s the staff’s most-deployed weapon: the L-word. (“Love.”) Staff bandy it about quite freely when talking about their attempts to know — and, yes, to love — each individual student.
When “we give our love and attention” to students, said school counselor Monica Robinson, most give their best in return.
“Their best may not be someone else’s definition of best,” said Robinson, who has been at the school five years, “but that’s what we recognize.”
Those actions break down into numbers jotted on a huge white board in the school conference room.
A 100th-day snapshot of school data shows that dropouts totaled 35 in 2014-15 and 11 this school year; student attendance, 82 percent vs. 76.2 percent; and teacher attendance, 98.3 percent vs. 93 percent.
What math types call “the tyranny of small numbers” makes it difficult to compare tallies between 2014-15, when the school and staff were much bigger, and today. Staff and student numbers are so small now that one person’s actions can create a seismic data shift instead of a statistical ripple.
A broader look shows that student attendance has changed very little through the years, but teacher attendance has risen — except during flu season — and student behavior, improved.
“You have to have a special spirit to work here,” said Robinson, who had taught both typical- and special-education students before coming to Ashley Chapel.
“It is a calling, in a sense. I don’t think anyone (on staff) landed here by accident.”
That includes one-year ACEC veteran Benny Leviner, a longtime exceptional-education teacher who has worked with Robinson and other staff to provide more than education for students, who often come from disadvantaged homes — if they have homes to go to.
Leviner and Robinson have been quite adept at making their pitch, a skill that won them a special appearance at last month’s School Board meeting because of the individual packages of soap, socks, toothbrushes and hoodies they distributed to each student at Christmas.
Late last year, Robinson crafted a written appeal to area businesses, asking for donations. Many businesses ignored the plea, but others came through.
“Several of us strive daily just to make sure our students have clean clothes, warm blankets …”
“Socks,” Leviner interjected.
“… Things a lot of us take for granted,” Robinson said. Often, the school also sends home donations of food — not just for the student but for the family.
“People don’t understand some of the battles they have fought,” Robinson said.
A few weeks ago, Leviner approached Aaron’s Furniture in Rockingham. Aaron’s, in turn, was overjoyed to donate a washer and dryer, manager Katrina Wager said Monday, calling the donation “a great way to give back to the community” and to help students in need.
And what do the students have to say about Ashley Chapel?
“The staff, they try to help more,” an eighth-grader boy said. “They want you do learn the most you can learn. It’s just that …”
“They’re not going to put up with the crap,” interjected a salty seventh-grade girl.
A ninth-grader sent to the school after fighting with someone who jumped him at his former school said he had fun “playing basketball and stuff,” which he hadn’t been able to do often at the Ninth Grade Academy.
“(But) it’s a lesson learned,” he said, at two months, already weary of the 90-school-day stay that means he’ll close out the year at Ashley Chapel. “I’m ready to get out.”
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]