By Natalie Strom
Alternative: different from the usual or conventional: as existing or functioning outside the established cultural, social or economic system. - Merriam-Webster Dictionary
When considering the term “alternative school,” a series of negative thoughts often comes to mind. Yet, that association can be extremely misleading. There are many “alternative schools” that are simply less conventional than the standard public school system. Case in point: Marco Island’s Market Place Mission Learning Center.
In its third year, the school currently serves seven students of different ages with its curriculum based around online courses. The system, Alpha Omega, allows Mr. Henry Hill, the school’s owner and teacher, a chance to teach students from grades 3 through 12, all at their own pace.
In no way is this “alternative” school meant for troublemakers. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It provides unconventional teaching for students who have been bullied, are shy, prefer a smaller class size, have learning disabilities or are incredibly intelligent. His students hail from all walks of life, but come together at The United Church of Marco’s Learning Center, forming friendships and immediate respect for one another as well as with Mr. Hill.
As students work through their online classes – over 160 to choose from – Mr. Hill monitors their progress, kneeling next to them, rather than standing over them – a technique he found to be quite successful in his 31 years teaching in the public school system of New York.
“I mean, what really is school? (In my early days of teaching) right away, I had it figured out. There were about 110 of us teachers and there were 1,500 kids. Were we really in charge? What were we going to do, try and beat them up? They would throw us right out the window!” His laugh is contagious, eliciting his thoughts on the absurdity of it all, but it also demonstrating his passion for fixing the system and helping each and every student that comes his way.
“So what really goes on (in these schools) is that we agree to negotiate with the students!” If done properly, with care and compassion, Mr. Hill’s philosophy is that the negotiation evolves and the children become eager to learn.
“I really enjoy trying to help kids, and I’ll tell you what happens when you do that. You don’t have any problems. I’ve never lost a student because it is personal for me and they know it. And that makes it easy!” Throughout his career in the public system, he taught over 5,500 students in English, History, Government and Photography.
Now, at Market Place Mission Learning Center, Mr. Hill is able to utilize a number of innovative methods where students can receive a well-rounded education while working at their own pace, but also coming together to work on projects. For example, every Thursday, the students have art class with Mr. Lee Horton, a local artist with a bright personality that aligns nicely with the classroom environment. Chalk art, paintings, and plastic bottles turned into flowers are all creations Mr. Horton has made with the students. He also talks about the philosophical aspects of art; what people consider art; the great artists of the world; and the history of art. All these things are fused together as the students work on their individual pieces or group project.
They can learn fundamentals such as sewing from a donated machine. They make bread from scratch; there are instruments available for use; there are live science experiments that take place in the classroom; and there are round table discussions.
They can also choose to work alone. “Last year I had a student that liked to work in an enclosed space. There was a nice sized closet in one of the rooms here, so we put a desk in there, and he would spend most of his time there.” A bean bag chair and a decorated back wall are also in the closet/personal classroom that is open for any student to use.
Students choose their classes, some of which are Christian-based as the Alpha Omega online curriculum is founded within that faith. However, it is completely the choice of the student as to whether they want to take these classes or not.
The United Church of Marco rents the Learning Center space to the school, but was hesitant at first. “The kids won them over,” states Mr. Hill. “The church began to support us more and allow us to use more space.” The church even supports students of the Congregation who wish to go to Market Place Mission Learning Center with scholarships if they are needed.
“The tuition is $6,000 per year for the school,” states Mr. Hill. “I have a pension and my wife still works, so even if there was no “profit,” we were still willing to go forth with opening the school, and we don’t turn anyone away.” The Hills also made the decision to make Market Place Mission Learning Center a B Corporation, which means ten percent of the “profits” would go to a charity or cause of their choosing.
Mr. Hill, although technically retired and at 70 years old, has high hopes that the school will continue to grow and that they will be able to offer even more to their students.
As an “alternative school,” it also falls under the private school category, where Mr. Hill admits is, “not too difficult to start in Florida. In fact I love Florida for this one reason. They don’t certify or approve or disapprove a school as such… Here’s what they say: We’re not accrediting these schools; parents beware. And by the way, the state certifies all the public schools but are they all succeeding? No.”
The Hills applied and quickly became a certified private school. Which means the Hills determine graduation criteria and students at the school do not take the FCAT.
“We encourage our students to of course take the SAT or ACT… We had five kids our first year, and three of them graduated.” One went on to Ringling College in Sarasota and two went on to Edison College. The students had no problem getting in, and any questions the faculty had were answered by Mr. Hill, who is able to provide printed reports of every grade of every test of every subject – up to 50 pages long in some cases.
Mr. Hill’s demeanor is joyous, friendly and elicits obvious excitement when it comes to teaching. But it should not be confused with his serious desire to give his students a well-rounded education where the proof can be seen in his graduates. What the Hills have created in Market Place Mission Learning Center may be different than the typical style of learning in this country, but for the students who attend, it’s alternative methods are exactly what they need to succeed. And it doesn’t hurt for them to know just how much their teacher cares for them as well.