Second Chance: Mitchell's alternative high school, 20 years old, pioneers individualized learningThe alternative high school began with eight students in a small house on the campus of what is now Longfellow Elementary School.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
Twenty years and 547 students since its opening, Mitchell’s Second Chance High School is celebrating a landmark anniversary, a permanent home and a bright future.
The alternative high school, which began with eight students in a small house on the campus of what is now Longfellow Elementary School, is now two decades old and growing -- offering at-risk kids from Mitchell and surrounding towns expanded education and life options.
“This is it -- our final location,” said Shane Thill, 45, who has been an advocate for alternative education as well as Second Chance’s only director during its 20 years of its existence.
The school now shares its new, and generously proportioned, Capital Street digs with Mitchell Technical Institute and the new Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy, across the street from the regular high school, and it has plans to add science to its curriculum next fall. That science program will be taught by Julie Olson, one of the state’s most highly regarded science teachers.
For Thill, however, it’s all about the kids.
“The kids who come to Second Chance are surviving, living day-to-day and living in the moment,” he said. “You have to model things for them; give them the skills they lack and show them the importance of setting goals.”
Second Chance caters to kids who have struggled in traditional classroom settings. Some may have emotional or learning disabilities and others may lack strong adult role models. Poor study habits and a tendency to sluff off learning responsibilities are common among newly enrolled kids.
“Many at-risk kids are beaten down and have low self-worth,” said Thill. Quitting, rather than following through on a project, has become standard operating procedure. Asking for help isn’t easy for most.
Excuses aren’t tolerated at Second Chance,Thill said. The school’s three-part motto is No Excuses; See it Through; and Higher Learning -- the latter point meaning simply that when students graduate they will be prepared for higher education, regardless of whether they intend to attend college upon graduation or pursue employment.
“They're not the ones who will raise their hands in front of 25 other kids and say ‘I don’t get it,’ said Lisa Neugebauer, who has taught language arts at SCHS for 16 years. “They are students who have mastered the art of the low profile, of flying under the radar.”
Neugebauer calls them “gray-area kids” who often defy attempts at pigeonholing. Many suffer from physical or mental health issues and have no support network.
Second Chance becomes the safety net of friends and mentors they never had.
At Second Chance, each student receives his or her own personal study plan that addresses the courses needed for graduation. Students work in both alternative and conventional classrooms.
“Every kid is different,” Thill said. “Some may spend half their time here and the rest across the street at Mitchell High School. Another may spend three-quarters of his time at Second Chance and the rest at MHS.”
If there’s any stigma attached to being a Second Chancer, it hasn’t been worthy of any notice, he said.
The Mass Customized Learning pilot program the Mitchell School District will introduce at the Mitchell Middle School next fall and at Mitchell High School the following year holds no fears for Second Chance, where student learning plans and schedules are updated on a daily basis.
“We’ve been doing individualized programs for years,” Thill said. He believes Second Chance has pioneered multi-grade individualized education within the Mitchell district.
He bristles at any suggestion that Second Chance is simply a place to drop off kids with discipline problems.
“It’s a privilege to be here; it’s not a right,” he said. “And it’s not a dumping ground.”
Second Chance was no cruise for Ryan Petersen.
Now 31 and married with two daughters, Petersen is the associate corporate counsel and tax specialist for Daktronics. In addition to a law degree earned at the University of South Dakota, he is also a CPA and is a few credits shy of earning his MBA.
Petersen said Second Chance saved him from his own laziness.
“I procrastinated on a grand level. I did well in classes I deemed useful to me and ignored a couple that I shouldn't have. Homework took a backseat to things more pressing to me at the time like trying to be ‘cool’ ...
“Shane stepped in and offered me a chance.”
Thill also made it clear that there were no easy street shortcuts on the road to graduation, Petersen said.
“I worked harder that year than any other in high school.”
SCHS alumnus Jake Vititoe’s success story is featured in the current SCHS newsletter. He figures it would have taken him five to six years to finish high school without the intervention of SCHS and its staff.
In the school newsletter, he wrote, “I didn’t take my first year seriously so I had to basically retake my freshman year.”
At the end of his sophomore year, Vititoe realized he wasn’t going to make it without help. With Second Chance he graduated on schedule and achieved his goal of enrolling in Mitchell Technical Institute’s Power Sports program.
Vittitoe said he’s well on his way to realizing his goal of working at a top motorcycle shop and to eventually opening his own custom motorcycle shop.
Gail Benning, 29, said the two years she spent at Second Chance High changed her life.
Now 29, she and her husband are the owners of Studio G Salon and Tanning, in Lennox.
In 1999, the world didn’t look so rosy.
“I was falling way behind in my high school credits,” she recalled. “I knew I needed to do something or I wouldn’t graduate with my class.”
Benning -- then Gail Dalldorf -- said she found it nearly impossible to concentrate in large classroom situations and focusing during lectures was equally difficult. She regularly “tuned out” teachers and was falling further behind each day.
Seeking a solution, Gail’s mother set up an interview with Thill, and Benning enrolled her daughter in Second Chance High that fall.
She had some serious ground to make up.
“I went into my junior year with just 10 credits and a 1.7 grade point average,” Benning recalled. She would graduate two years later with a 2.3 GPA and 24 credits. She averaged a B plus in her classes at SCHS. She regrets that her poor start pulled down her overall GPA.
Benning wouldn’t learn, until she had a son of her own who suffered from the same disorder, that she suffered from a form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) that made focusing in a large classroom extremely difficult. Both she and her son have since received professional treatment and are doing well.
Second Chance instructors, she said, made her responsible for her own education. Smaller classes, coupled with individualized help, made the difference.
“They made you realize you have to do it on your own,” she said. Blowing off a lesson wasn’t an option. Slowly she set, and met, her academic goals one lesson and once course at a time.
“It was, ‘Here’s your book, here’s your outline, go to it,’ ” she recalled. Teachers helped her when she became stuck.
“There’s no such thing as ‘stand and lecture’ at Second Chance,” agreed Language Arts teacher Lisa Neugebauer.