Jesse Carpenter and Ryan Parman get back to work after getting a piece of birthday cake. The entire student body and staff at the school celebrated Pam Lawson birthday Tuesday.

Roger Wright was late to his interview Tuesday.

But he had a good excuse.

Instead of being able to talk about the progress at McDaniel Learning Center, the director of the school was out buying a cake for his secretary, Pam Lawson. When Wright returned, it was time for a surprise birthday celebration of cake and ice cream. And so, as it’s done in McDaniel, the entire student body and staff gathered at the end of the hallway and sang happy birthday as Lawson rounded the corner.

“It’s like a big family here,” student Ashley Minor said.

Indeed, since the alternative school opened in October, the McDaniel staff have created an atmosphere that is both casual and respectful, with students, who had previously struggled passing their classes, working hard and finding success.

That’s exactly how Wright wants it.

“We are looking for students who want to help themselves,” he said. “We’re here for that kid that has fallen behind for one reason or another.”

This year, 29 students will graduate from the center and about eight more will catch up to their grade level. Of those graduates, Wright predicted 27 of them would have dropped out of school. Others would have gotten so woefully behind they would have too.

Dillon Clontz was one.

“I was failing every one of my classes,” he said. “I had to go to credit recovery just about every summer. I was planning on dropping out whenever I turned 18.”

In October, Clontz was invited to attend the school after being interviewed, as are all McDaniel students.

Since, he’s flourished.

“Now I’ve passed all of my classes and I’m a senior,” he said. “It’s a whole lot better than South. There aren’t that many students and the teachers can get to everybody.”

Minor agreed.

“It’s awesome,” she said. “You’re pretty much free. It’s not like an actual high school. It’s more like a college. They treat you more like an adult and you have responsibility.”

Minor was accepted at McDaniel in January.

“I got a second chance,” she said. “I was just way behind on credits. I enjoyed school except for the getting up in the morning.”

Soon, Minor had integrated into McDaniel and was getting As and B's in her classes. Now, she’s half a credit short of catching up to her class, has gotten a summer job as a nurse’s aide and has plans for her future.

Through career counseling and shadowing at the vocational school, she’s decided to become a nurse.

Shonda Floyd, 17, is still undecided on her future career, but she knows she’s on the right track. On Saturday, she will graduate with her class and walk the line.

“I’m excited and relieved,” she said. “I’ve worked a lot harder for it than I would have at North.”

Floyd got behind in her studies while she was pregnant with her son, a situation in which several McDaniel students have found themselves.

Wright estimated about 23 percent of his students have children or are pregnant. Others have to put work ahead of school to support their families. And many students just don’t have a support system in place that encourages study.

As a result, the McDaniel staff makes sure there is open communication between teacher and student. Each morning, all six staff members line up at the door to greet the students.

“It’s almost like walking through a gauntlet,” Wright, a former history teacher laughed. “I always did that in my classroom, stood by the door and greeted my students. It’s important for the kids to feel comfortable and know they’re wanted here.”

Still, Wright said his absenteeism rates are considerably higher than at the traditional high schools. Interestingly, discipline isn’t an issue.

“Discipline is non-existent compared to other schools,” he said.

Part of the reason for the good behavior stems from Wright’s willingness to send students back to traditional high school if they show they’re uninterested in succeeding at McDaniel.

“The reason is: They’re taking up a spot,” he said.

Indeed, with about 50 students on a waiting list to attend McDaniel, Wright said he can’t afford to waste space.

In terms of curriculum, students spend two periods a day in the classroom, after which they take computer classes, head to the vocational school or participate in counseling sessions. Students said the curriculum is rigorous, but all credited the low student to teacher ratio — 1 to 15 — for their success. The formula has worked so well, many students don’t want to return to traditional high school once they’ve caught up. For Minor — and many others — it’s McDaniel Learning Center that has made the difference between their success and failure.

“I just understand stuff more,” Minor said. “It’s like a college here. It makes you want to grow up and do something with your life.”

Staff writer Tara Kaprowy can be reached by e-mail at

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