Students arrive at Meriden’s Venture Academy when they have nowhere else to go. They have had behavior problems, lack of motivation, truancy issues, poor grades. When every intervention effort has failed, they end up on the doorstep of the Venture Academy.
“For so many of these kids, the community has really given up on them,” says Venture Program Director Mark Hedrick. “This is a chance for them to start over.”
Located on the grounds of the Rushford behavioral health complex on Paddock Avenue, the Venture Academy gives struggling students in grades 6–12 an opportunity to experience success in school—something many of them haven’t known in years, if at all, Hedrick says.
Promoting Success with SWAG
Nothing motivates teenagers like SWAG. In this case, SWAG stands for Students Who Achieve Greatness. As part of the Venture Academy’s SWAG program, students who meet attendance, behavior and academic requirements earn a bracelet that allows them to move freely in the school hallways without a pass. They wear the bracelet like a badge of honor, Hedrick says.
SWAG is just one piece in the school’s Positive Behavior Support Model. Signs posted prominently around the school remind students of respectful behavior. Every day, teachers recognize good behavior, both verbally and with reward tickets. Those tickets can be used to purchase items in the school store. They can also be used for special privileges like 10 extra minutes on the basketball court or a trip to the new Student Reward Center—a game room with flat-screen TVs, a pool table and video gaming systems.
New Culinary Arts Program and T-Shirt Printing Business
The school also builds self-esteem by teaching students job and life skills and helping them make a difference in their community. The school’s already strong vocational focus will be beefed up this year with two new programs—a culinary arts program and a T-shirt printing business.
The culinary arts program will not only allow kids to develop the skills needed to work in a restaurant, but will also teach life skills like how to plan, shop for and cook healthy meals. For a lot of these kids, their idea of nutrition is based on the dollar menu at McDonald’s, according to Hedrick.
The T-shirt printing business “will save money for the district and provide students with valuable job experience,” Hedrick points out.
The school store is another great training ground, he adds. Students in the business class run the store. They create commercials for it, order the items and stock the shelves, and operate the cash register—all the while developing job skills ranging from marketing to customer service.
The school also offers internship programs with Shop Rite and the Augusta Curtis Cultural Arts Center. In addition, students help out at various school and city events during the year, experiencing the reward of contributing to their community while learning job skills at the same time.
For maintaining positive behavior, Venture students also get a pass to the YMCA, where they can take part in classes like first aid, CPR, babysitting and lifeguarding. They also get to use the facilities.
Hedrick says the students use their Y privileges much more than he anticipated. “It keeps them busy and off the streets,” he adds.
“Mark Benigni understands the importance of making the program attractive to students and competitive with outplacement programs,” Hedrick says of Meriden’s school superintendent. “He feels very strongly that Meriden students should stay in Meriden.”
To that end, the school system has given the Venture Academy a makeover this year. After a plan to move to a new building fell through because of cost, the current building now has 3,000 square feet of additional classroom space, fresh paint, new floors, SMART Boards (digital white boards) for all classrooms, and Wi-Fi.
Attractive surroundings, the chance to develop new skills, and rewards for good behavior are having a positive impact on these kids, Hedrick says. One student who came to Venture having attended school just 15 days the year before is now getting attendance awards. Others are making the honor roll for the first time, getting jobs or going on to college.
The most rewarding part of Hendrick’s job is “being on that journey with them when they achieve success,” he says. He has been working with students with behavioral needs for 12 years, first as a classroom teacher before becoming an administrator.
“I love working with these kids,” insists Hedrick. He says he can identify with his students because he remembers what it was like to feel disenfranchised in high school and have no motivation. Now he serves as a living example of what is possible for them.
For this group of students who once had little self-esteem and less hope, every day is a new (ad)venture.