Heritage, located at the base of Mt. Timpanogos in Provo, recently received the Best of State for Alternative Education award.
Heritage was founded in 1984 by Jerry Spanos and serves teenagers who suffer from a wide variety of mental health issues. Many of the student body are on the autism spectrum and the others struggle with varying levels of anxiety and/or depression.
Jason Wright, principal, nominated Heritage for the award and explained that, “Students end up at Heritage when nearly all other educational systems have failed to help them access their education. Many students at Heritage are on an Individualized Education Plan and Heritage accommodates all of them.”
Innovations at Heritage not only give students many viable options for learning but set the school apart as a frontrunner for improvements in learning methods.
“We are looking to be in front of the mark, so to speak,” Jason said. “For example, we use an approach in the classroom called ‘constructivism.’ It’s not used by a lot a schools. Constructivism is a learning approach that really focuses on synergy of thinking. The whole class is given a task and they have to work together as a team to achieve the task. It could come in a debate or group work but the idea is a lot of brains can create and do one thing.”
Critical pedagogy is another successful teaching approach used at Heritage.
“This is an approach where the classroom dynamics are run by students,” Jason said. “They have a big say in the curriculum and how it’s run. The students are involved in critical teaching where students are being critical about what they are taught. They are encouraged to ask questions, debate, get into a dialogue. The teacher makes sure it is cognitively and culturally relevant to them.”
Outside of the classroom innovative methods are taking students to places they might not have thought possible.
Jason, a native of London, said the traditional classrooms are shuttered on Friday afternoons giving students the option to participate in vocational, language and drama classes as well as sports.
“Horse riding, sports, drama, learning a new language – these help students develop more as a whole student,” he said. “It gets them out of traditional classroom. Most kids seem to like it. It’s good motivation for them to work and get off of academic probation. They need a grade of 70 or more to attend.”
He said students involved in drama recently put on the play “Seussical” noting that students develop confidence, doing things they never thought they could do, like standing on a stage in front of hundreds of people.
Joni Reynolds, vice principal, spoke of the school system that rewards good behavior.
“The school store is a positive behavior support rewards system,” she said. “We started it as a way to reward the kids. If the students were normally getting Fs and start passing classes they now receive ‘scholar dollars.’”
Joni explained it’s not real money or transferable. It’s only good at The Snack Shack where they can buy snacks and drinks but also school supplies, fidget toys, yarn, origami paper, etc. Two students are employed at the store with a staff member overseeing it. Teachers are allotted a certain amount of “scholar dollars” per month and other academic leaders can reward good behavior as well.
“Historically teachers in academic settings worldwide tend to focus on the negative rather than the positive,” she said. “This shifts it to the positive. The kids get rewarded every time they do something right. Teachers will give them a point or stars which accumulate where they can get scholar dollars.”
Jason said the store has been a good motivator for the last two to four months but the effect of all innovative programs at Heritage has shown great success with students’ academic focus.
“It helps with academia,” he said. “As we’ve implemented new approaches we’ve seen an overall increase in average GPA. It has increased since we engaged in these new programs at Heritage. It’s a phenomenal move on behalf of the students.”
Joni also spoke of Professional Learning Communities at Heritage, another way the school is measuring growth and success. She said each department has their own group and they evaluate the curriculum to see if it is what is best for the students. They check to see if core standards are being followed to make sure it’s the best practice and essential for the students.
In submitting the nomination Jason also highlighted information on the PEERS program. “PEERS focuses on teaching social skills to students with autism,” he wrote. “As a result, students who had struggled in social situations their entire lives began making and keeping friends at school for the first time. Consequently, students began improving academically.”
He continued, “The PEERS program is one … example of how Heritage has helped young people succeed in the classroom. Recently, Heritage developed a sensory program for autistic students who are over or under stimulated in an academic environment. This program helps students on the ASD spectrum feel more comfortable and less afraid of attending school, and students who might otherwise avoid school feel less intimated in the classroom because they know their sensory needs will be met.”
The awards are given annually by Best of State, The Premier Recognition and Awards program. The website information states, “Winners from each category will receive a Best of State medal. Best of State winners also receive the right to display the Best of State logo and year of award on business correspondence, their website and other promotional materials.”
Ian Petersen, Heritage Business Development Director, reflected on receiving the award.
“It is certainly an honor for the school collectively but it is the teachers, support staff and faculty who work diligently each day with a difficult student population,” he said. “It is these staff that we hope take pride in the achievement. Sometimes you don’t realize the good you are doing until someone tells you about it.”