“Alt. Ed. Delete”: debunking the myths of alternative education

Yoga mats, Tik-Toks, Zen Gardens and chickens: welcome to the wonderfully-rich world of RV PREP

Mrs. Meekins-Montgomery welcoming stakeholders to RV PREP

Photo courtesy of Burlington County Times

Mrs. Meekins-Montgomery welcoming stakeholders to RV PREP

Mrs. Vanessa Meekins-Montgomery, Director of RV PREP

“Ohhhhh….you’re at RV PREP. That’s where the bad kids go, right?”

“Well, what exactly do you mean by ‘the bad kids’?”

“You know, kids who get in trouble.  At least that’s what I heard.  I mean, isn’t that why you are out in the middle of the field in Eastampton?”

This was my conversation with the cashier at the check out at Walgreens.  I still had my RV badge on and she asked me what I taught, because she had never seen me at RV.  My reply was that I’m the Director of RV PREP.   We chatted a little bit more, I invited her to come check us out at PREP to really see what we are all about.  And as I walked back to my car with my purchases, I thought about the fact that I’ve had this conversation before in various places.  I realized that many people know RV PREP exists, but they don’t really know what happens “out in the middle of the field in Eastampton.”

So, iI’m going to introduce you to RV PREP and dismantle some of  the myths and misconceptions that are out there. And don’t let me forget to tell you about the chickens!

Here’s the background: 

RV PREP started in 2018 as part of Dr. Heilig’s Vision 2020 Strategic Plan.  The plan included providing “a physical environment that supports learning and provides the tools necessary to engage students.”  After a lot of work by teams of dedicated educators over several years, RV PREP was born and I was lucky enough to land the job as the director. And to be clear, being the director of RV PREP is actually my dream job, especially because it is in the community in which I live, and it is my son’s alma mater (although I just started working here in 2018, I’ve been White Team since 2006).

The PREP in RV PREP stands for “Personalized Readiness and Education Program.” But what does it mean? RV PREP has what I like to call the “Team of 10.” We have ten adults – teachers and support staff – who are dedicated to giving each student at RV PREP the opportunity to earn credits at their own pace in a smaller environment where they can get individualized attention. When you think about it, it’s pretty awesome. Smaller classes means teachers can spend more time with each student.

People often wonder if school is easier at RV PREP. Our team holds all of our students to high academic standards by creating a “Success Plan” that outlines a set of academic goals that need to be met every three weeks.  That’s a pretty intense support system! 

How do you get to RV PREP?

Reach out to your guidance counselor and see if RV PREP is the right fit for you. It’s not for everyone.  There are several steps in the process, including completing an  application and a rigorous application review. Once those steps are completed, applicants and their families must attend an intake meeting to finalize their acceptance into our community.  It’s not a quick or easy process and we need to determine how our applicants can add to the climate and culture of RV PREP.  

What happens once you are here?

After you’ve met with me, I’ll introduce you to your team leader who will spend the next three days explaining the climate and culture of RV PREP through our Week Zero Orientation.  It starts with a Tik-Tok (everything starts with a TikTok, that’s kind of my thing) and ends with a full understanding of how we do what we do – credit tracker, three week cycles, goal setting, four teams – one commUNITy, and more.  

And after all of that, the magic begins. 

I asked some of the students at PREP, “what was the most surprising thing about coming to RV PREP?”

“We aren’t the typical alternative school” said one the third year students here. “You always hear about how alternative schools are for the bad kids. We aren’t bad. We are proud of who we are and we are proud that our school ISN’T the typical alternative school.”  

Our hallways are clean and bright and our classrooms are full of organized chaos – there’s music, there’s movement and quite often there is excitement about what is happening.  Do you need to sit at a traditional desk to learn?  Not if sitting on a yoga mat in the corner works better for you.  

Do you need to sit at a traditional desk to learn?  Not if sitting on a yoga mat in the corner works better for you.

Another student said, “One of the things that I like best is how flexible you guys are. You guys create a way for us to make high school happen.” 

Pandemic or not, many of the students at PREP are overcoming issues or battling back from odds that may have seemed insurmountable at times.  But because these warriors show up, the Team of 10 is there to guide, support, educate and provide pathways to success each day.  

“I’ve become family  with people that I never thought I’d even be friends with,” said another RV PREP student.  Currently, there are 35 students enrolled at RV PREP.  Take a moment to think about your friends from each of the sending districts.  Imagine all of those personalities, interests, backgrounds and influences and boil it down from over 2,000 to slightly over 30.  The friendships and relationships form faster and are more unique here.  In a building with this number of students, you can’t help but to know everybody. And since you are there with them over half of your waking hours each day, you become more than friends and then 1048 Smithville Road becomes “…my home away from home.”

Is it all roses all the time?

Of course not (is anything?). There is a lot of hard work. There are bad days. There are days when we just. Don’t. Want. To. But when we hit those thorns, either individually or as a group, we take the time to find out how we rally from this.  My office is a place to analyze and discuss the  issue that is creating a rift in our community. As we walk through it, we spend some time using the Zen Garden as we talk it out. We create a plan to repair the rift and then move forward from there with a resolution on the table.  

What about the “bad kids?” 

We don’t have bad kids at RV PREP.  We have students who are seeking a different path to earn the same diploma as students who attend class at the main campus.  We have literary magazine award winners.  We have future parole officers, HVAC operators, mechanics, teachers, world travelers and artists.

Is it really in the middle of a field?

Yes. That field has been the site of some pretty intense phys ed classes – including a fan favorite – kickball. That field has provided opportunities to walk around and talk when the day is particularly stressful. That field is where we created a compost station, baked cookies using a solar oven, planted bushes and flowers, practiced yoga, planted trees and just enjoyed nature.  

I am fiercely proud of our learners, our educators, our program and the community we have built. Our Team of Ten is a formidable group of people who work hard and work together to make sure that every student who walks into RV PREP has the opportunity to embrace greatness and walks out as a more Positive, Responsible, Empowered and Purposeful  member of their community.  

Oh yeah, the chickens?  That’ll have to wait until next time.  As they say on TikTok “Like for Part Two.”