Working with at-risk students means Rob Staley sees kids go through ugly and tragic experiences, but he also sees plenty of young people from difficult circumstances change their lives for the better.
“We’re in the business of kids who have absolutely no hope and they’re at the brink in their life of taking their own life,” he said. At the same time, “our staff gets to see and hear incredible stories of students who make it.”
Staley was an administrator at Concord Community Schools for 20 years, including principal at the high school, before establishing a new way of doing school.
For many years, Staley has regularly visited the Elkhart County Jail as an assistant chaplain.
“I ran into a whole bunch of my former students that I had expelled or that had dropped out of school,” he said. “I started to interview them and ask them questions. You know, what could we do differently and if we could start this all over, what would make this successful for you? We just had some really neat dialogue.”
Students talked to Staley about wanting to learn at their own pace and to just “sit in a living room, just sit on couches and talk about life,” Staley said.
Those ideas became major pieces of how The Crossing works, which Staley opened in Goshen in 2004. Wanting to talk about life led to the “family time concept,” where students and teachers sit and talk together for 30 minutes each day about whatever they want to discuss.
Those discussions can lead to questions about God and faith, which is why The Crossing is a faith-based organization, Staley said. The Crossing has grown to include 18 different campuses serving more than 1,000 kids in northern Indiana. Plans are underway to establish sites in Gary, Muncie, Lafayette and Indianapolis in the next couple of years.
“To say the least, there’s a need,” he said.
“All educators,” Staley said, “recognize that we’re missing a group of kids that are just not being successful in a traditional school environment.”
As Staley reaches out to connect with more public schools to partner with The Crossing, school officials are often surprised, but grateful, that The Crossing wants to work with schools’ “most difficult kids, the kids that are in jail, the kids that are handling guns, the kids that are in gangs,” he said.
Working with those students, though, can make for difficult times.
“When working with the most troubled kids, we’re going to have death and we’re going to have jail,” Staley said. “We say at our programs across the state ... if they don’t make it in our program, they have two choices in life: jail or death. And that is absolutely 100 percent. That is not ‘kind of,’ it’s not once-in-a-while. It’s literally a matter of time before they’re going to go to jail or they’re going to die.”
Since The Crossing opened in 2004, 12 students or former students have died, most to suicide, he said.
“On top of that, I’m sorry to say there’s a significant number of our kids that go to prison for life, which is almost like death because they’ll no longer be citizens of a normal community,” Staley said.
Just prior to his interview earlier this month with an Elkhart Truth reporter, Staley had just learned that a student had possibly been involved in a shooting the night before.
“There are no surprises to us of any kind,” Staley said.
“At Concord, we would say we have a trauma team that can get together to deal with these sorts of incidents, but they happen very, very rarely. Here, they happen weekly.”
It’s something Staley and other staff are sure to talk about with new hires. There’s “a strong shepherding network within The Crossing,” with people helping each other out, he explained, “so we prepare our minds and our hearts for this to happen because we know it’s going to happen.”
“Our strength is from the Lord and our hope is in the miraculous intervention that God is going to change someone’s life and we have lots of hope in that,” Staley said. “That’s how we maintain an optimistic spirit. We believe in a God who can do something about this.”
Two weeks ago, a young woman in Frankfort told Staley that he saved her life. Without parents or family, The Crossing had become her family, Staley said the girl told him.
“She just wept,” he said.
Some students have become open enough to share during “family time” about the tough things in life, issues like self-harm or cutting or how they’ve considered taking their own lives, but what’s changed for them, Staley said.
“We know this is going to be ugly, but we also know there’s going to be something really great coming out of (working with these students) ... and somebody’s got to do this. It’s going to be super messy, but somebody’s got to do this,” he said.
Staff, often including Staley, and students also work together through several small businesses students have started. They school’s tree service is often hired outside the area, which leads to camping trips near their sites. The students also often want to work during school vacations.
“We build these relationships with our kids,” he said, “and it’s very invigorating for us.”