ST. LOUIS • As students took a final exam recently at Shearwater High School, its founder and her staff were focused on more than just tests — they were finding food at local pantries for one student and a bus pass for another.
And those needs were relatively minor compared with the other challenges Stephanie Krauss has faced since she opened the doors to the charter school in 2010: two students murdered, another shot and confined to a wheelchair, homelessness, parental abandonment, drug problems and teens who are parents themselves.
Krauss created the school in north St. Louis armed with her own experience as a troubled teen and school dropout. But even she admits surprise at the issues her students face.
"We knew it would be hard," she said. "If it was an easy fix, somebody would have figured it out already."
The stakes are high at Shearwater, and the pressure intense. Although most of the students have transcripts placing them in high school, nearly all come in at elementary school levels in reading and math. The school's staff of 12 set out to prepare them for college and careers.
After two years of working with students, they consider the school a lab to develop ways of helping high-risk kids. The work is getting attention. After state legislators heard testimony from Shearwater students, Gov. Jay Nixon last month signed into law a bill that paves the way for charter schools to replicate the school's model. Recently, global manufacturer Emerson donated $500,000 to the school, calling its work groundbreaking.
A year-round schedule puts Shearwater students back in class for a new school year on July 23. They'll return with the school's first success stories as inspiration — nine graduates who all have promising plans.
The graduates include Ashleigh Roseman, 21. After she was expelled from McCluer North for fighting and was arrested, Roseman gave up on graduating. "I was like, forget school," she recalled. "I guess I'm just going to be one of those people who doesn't do anything."
Roseman was one of the school's first students, but in January, after her mother died unexpectedly, she stopped coming to school. The Shearwater staff pulled her back in, and she "pushed through," Roseman said. They even drove her to St. Charles so she could continue meeting with a counselor who had previously helped her.
This fall, Roseman will attend Regency Beauty School, and she dreams of someday owning a salon.
"What did it take for me to be here? Dedication, patience, encouragement, leadership and faith in God," Roseman said as she stood on stage in cap and gown at the Shearwater graduation on June 29, her mother's birthday. "Two years ago, I would not have been able to tell you what I wanted to do."
PREPARING FOR SUCCESS
Shearwater, named after a bird that founders say stands as a symbol of determination, opened its doors in July 2010.
Located on the campus of Ranken Technical College, the school's goal is not just to arm students with diplomas, but also to prepare them to succeed in college and in life.
As a charter school, Shearwater is largely free to create its own curriculum and standards, as approved by its sponsor, St. Louis University, and ultimately, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The school typically has 60 to 80 students enrolled, with a waiting list. It has an annual budget of about $1.3 million, which comes from a mix of federal grants, state money and private donations.
Shearwater is a competency-based school, meaning students advance when they show what they know. The students wear uniforms, but there are no seat-time requirements, or hours of class they must attend to earn credits.
To graduate, the students must know "21 by 21" — a strong knowledge in 21 subject areas by the time they are age 21. The requirements are aligned to national and state standards in science, reading, writing and math, but also speaking, listening and life skills such as good health and job searches.
Across the country, the majority of schools for at-risk students have a traditional curriculum but are mostly just an alternative building for those with behavior problems, said Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Learning, a global network of schools focused on reducing dropout rates and preparing students for life after high school.
A small but growing number of schools are actually alternative by design, using personalized learning, Washor said.
"Very few schools deal with each and every student and their needs and their interests at the level that Stephanie is doing," he said of Krauss and her school.
The first name pulled in a lottery for one of 90 spots when Shearwater opened was Da'Jah Dale. But she was homeless then, and the agency that referred her and the school couldn't get in touch with her until the day before the deadline.
By last month, Dale, 21, had completed the work to walk with other students at graduation.
During her time at Shearwater, her home life has been unstable. But at school, Dale worked toward graduation, completed an internship and nurtured her love of poetry. "I will not settle for less when I can do so much more," she said.
ABOVE AND BEYOND
Shearwater works with several agencies and universities to help students get to college.
Staff members have taken students' clothes home to launder. They've driven students to college visits, sometimes paying application fees. Last month, as the students worked to finish their final projects in time for graduation, a staff member picked them up on a Saturday and brought them to school to press on with their work.
The job takes grit, and the turnover is high. None of the original teachers will be there in the coming school year. But the school will have its first principal; Shearwater has hired Mike Hylen, who previously led the alternative high school in the Rockwood School District.
For every 100 kids who apply, about 50 make it through orientation, and of those, only 25 typically continue with classes. The school will continue to track its students in coming years, said Krauss, who is no stranger to struggle.
She stopped going to school as a teenager growing up in New Jersey because of problems with alcohol and at home. She would go on to work with Teach for America and earn graduate degrees in education and social work.
Krauss was a graduate student at Washington University when she set out to create a school based on her research into high-risk youths in St. Louis. More than 1,000 people offered advice that would help shape Shearwater.
Now, a group of her students, after graduating last month, will attend Ranken. One is interested in the military, and another will intern at Shearwater. The first year after high school is difficult for any student, and staff members say they will continue to fill the role of a supportive family.
One of the new graduates, Jeremy Dickerson, 18, once dreamed of working at Boeing. His family told him he was smart, but school couldn't keep his interest.
After falling asleep in class at the Construction Careers Center, he assaulted a teacher and never went back. He was out for a year before he heard about Shearwater on the radio.
The transition was difficult. Friends sometimes made it easy not to go. He realized he had to break free.
"I don't affiliate with people who don't go to school or have a job," he said. "When I came here, I knew what I had to do."
Now, he is one of the first in his family to graduate from high school.
He will attend St. Louis Community College in the fall. His long-term goal: to study engineering.