His mother had left her tears behind on the phone with her husband when she came to Adam, steeling herself to tell him the news:
The public school district won’t allow him in.
Adam was two years past the crime committed at age 13 in a foster home that had put him into the Texas juvenile justice system. At 15, under probation, he had reunited with his biological mother, Kassie Argo, in Independence, Mo.
Argo wanted to hide her feeling of despair, knowing what another chance at school meant to Adam and his struggle to get out of juvenile justice’s educational purgatory.
But Adam felt his mother’s fear.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said, remembering that late summer day in 2017. “I was scared I’d end up nowhere.”
This was before his probation officer — asking around for ideas to help the desperate family — found out about Star School.
This was before Adam became one of the more than 630 Missouri youths that Star School has helped since the state Division of Youth Services (DYS) partnered with the Local Investment Commission (LINC) to create the online school in 2013.
“These are real people, real kids — real families,” Star School Principal Jim Dunn said. “They’re not characters you’d see on Locked Up on cable TV.”
Many of them are starving for family and advocates to help them recover the educational path they’ve lost. Many are dispirited or rebellious and need someone prodding them to take the opportunities that do come.
Some, like Adam, are eager to return to school and have a parent fighting for them — but don’t know where to turn.
An area school district denied Argo’s request to enroll Adam, which was within its rights, but hard for Argo to understand. Any other public district and private schools would require tuition, which she wouldn’t be able to afford even if they allowed Adam in — which was unlikely.
She looked into homeschooling, only to find herself staring at curriculum costs, not to mention the overwhelming proposition that it would be on her to teach her teenager high school coursework.
“I barely finished high school,” Argo said. “How am I supposed to help him? . . . I was mind-baffled.”
Argo and Adam were not alone.
Until Star School came along, the anxiety over education options not only consumed families, but also troubled the juvenile officers who were trying to help them.
In his 25 years as a juvenile officer, Platte County Deputy Mike Emanuel often fretted over teenagers who got in trouble “just being dumb,” and then could not return to school.
He dealt with parents in educational dilemmas they couldn’t manage: Costly online programs. An uncooperative child.
“Sometimes our office would try to figure out if we could pay half,” he said.
In 2012, Tim Decker, a former LINC executive who was DYS director, looked back to LINC for help to try to do something about it. DYS wanted a state-funded program to help youths involved in juvenile courts who either can’t return to public school, or are uncomfortable returning because of their past.
They started Star School, with Dennis Gragg serving as its first director.
‘It breaks my heart’
The work, many times, is emotionally hard, says Linda Davidson, Star School’s educational coordinator. They’re grasping after teens so far down a lost road.
But nearly 100 teens in Star School have earned high school diplomas or an equivalent degree since 2013. More than 150 returned to public high school or a post-secondary school.
Star School staff and teachers cherish these successes. They have traveled to numerous graduation ceremonies throughout the state. Pictures of graduates hang on the walls in Star School’s Kansas City-area office.
“It is so life-changing for them,” Davidson said.
Until they see their students at ceremonies, in most cases, the Star School teachers are just voices on the phone — encouraging presences behind text messages.
Star School students get access to a digital curriculum. Those who need a laptop computer get one from Star School. And their certified teachers hover digitally nearby, as much as the students let them.
“A lot have had so many things up against them, it’s hard to trust people,” Davidson said. “They are smart kids who didn’t know they could be successful. They need somebody they can trust in their corner.”
Students have their Star School teachers’ personal cell phone numbers, Dunn said. They can reach out anytime.
In some ways, the freedom of distance learning is easier for students who may have had bad experiences in the past with teachers in classrooms, Dunn said.
“They had constant conflicts,” he said, grating his fists together, “having to see (the teacher) every day.”
With Star School, an unhappy student can simply go offline for awhile.
But the flip side, Dunn said, is that Star School teachers have to work harder to pursue relationships with their students.
“We’re a non-judgmental program,” Dunn said. “There is nothing punitive we can do. The school is voluntary. All we have is that relationship and a desire to see a kid get credits and get a diploma.”
The students who slip away weigh over the teachers, Davidson said. “It’s the hardest thing for me to get used to,” she says. “It breaks my heart.”
But a student can always come back. And some have, she said, at age 20 and 21, and earned their high school equivalency degrees. They’ve had some parents — who yearned as well to earn a high school degree — enroll in Star School and graduate alongside their children.
John Hawkins, the longtime DYS coordinator in Missouri’s southeast region, has watched many of these success stories. He knows how hard it is to restore broken lives and sees Star School educators as partners in an empathetic mission.
“You have to be up to the challenge, because sometimes you’re all they got,” he said. “There’s a lot of disappointment, but there’s nothing better than when a kid figures it out.”
Some of those “kids” in Hawkins’ territory graduated this spring and joined in a graduation ceremony in Poplar Bluff, Mo., Hawkins said.
Dunn and Davidson came down, and some of the teachers from around the state too.
“It was so commendable of them,” Hawkins said. “It’s just a wonderful program.”
What now, Adam?
As Adam turns 17 this fall, he’s back on course with schooling, eyeing college plans, looking all the way out to a master’s degree in library science.
He’d still like to be back in public school, with more opportunities to meet friends.
But he appreciates the adult friends he’s had in his teachers on the phone.
“They understand how hard it is,” he said. “If I need help, they’ll be there to help. If I’m stuck, they’ll be there to help me figure out something.”
Probation will pass and Adam will be able to leave his juvenile crime behind him, without sacrificing an education that can carry him forward.
That’s what Argo wants for him. That’s what his teachers want for him. That’s what Dunn wants for him.
They will be that “team on the other end of the phone,” Dunn said, that Adam and other students can turn to, assured by a feeling: “They’re on my side.”
By Joe Robertson, LINC writer