GOSHEN — Merit Learning Center principal Kristen Watt hopes that the program’s recent accreditation will change the community’s perception of the Goshen facility.
“We are not a place for bad kids,” Watt said on Thursday, Oct. 31, standing in a hallway at Merit as Halloween-costumed students navigated the halls. “We are a place for kids who need alternative instruction.”
First in the state
According to Indiana Department of Education spokeswoman Julia Johns, Merit is the only alternative school in Indiana funded via the state’s alternative education grant to become accredited.
Accreditation means that a school has voluntarily met a set of educational standards, according to AdvancED, the agency that accredited Merit.
There are more than 200 programs like Merit throughout the state that also receive the grant money, Johns said, but none of the other programs have achieved accreditation.
What is Merit?
Merit’s focus, according to Watt, is on helping kids graduate from high school with individualized instruction. In other words, she said, Merit students are kids who aren’t able to learn in a traditional classroom setting for a few specific reasons. They may be pregnant, or a parent. They may have to work to support themselves. The most common reason that students attend Merit, Watt said, is simply that they have fallen behind academically. And if Merit didn’t exist, some of these students would never finish high school.
Merit works with five Elkhart County school corporations. Each school corporation purchases a certain number of “slots” each year, and that’s the number of students from that school who may attend Merit.
When students graduate through Merit’s program, they are still counted in the number of graduates from their home school. In 2013, Merit increased the graduation rate of Goshen and Concord by 10 percent, and increased Northridge’s graduation rate by 6 percent.
Merit students primarily use a computerized curriculum, and they also have the option to take some extracurricular classes.
One staff member, Sarah Asma, said on Thursday that she enjoys working at Merit because she’s able to help students learn one-on-one.
“I love helping them where they’re ‘stuck’” Asma said, “vs. in a regular class, you have to move on.”
Asma is in her third year of working at Merit after teaching junior high and high school math at a traditional school.
Another way that Merit helps students is that the school is a Early Head Start site. Right now, 22 babies — all children of Merit students — are cared for on the premises while the students learn.
Watt feels strongly that Merit students need the opportunity to earn dual credit — high school and college credit. Students also need more practical experience such as job shadowing or internships, she said.
Watt said in an earlier interview that she would like to have business partners and others in the community support creative ways to get students ready for the workforce.
Other goals for Merit’s future were developed after hearing feedback from the accrediting agency that visited Merit in early October.
The accrediting team — made up of other local educators, in part — recommended that Merit staff encourage more leadership in students, and involve more parents in the school’s mission.
“We don’t have a whole lot of functions where we are bringing parents in to help,” Watt said following the accrediting team’s visit. “We also want to give students more of a voice — have them help determine what types of elective credits we offer.”