A year ago, Middleborough resident Tyler Smith had absolutely no desire to attend college. His relationship with school had turned bitter after he came out as transgender his freshman year, and the alienation that ensued left him closed off and feeling futureless.
That changed the beginning of his senior year, when Smith enrolled at Map Academy, an alternative school in Plymouth for students who have not thrived in traditional settings.
On the evening of June 19, at the school graduation, Smith wore a white cap and gown, waiting gleefully to receive the diploma he had endured so much to earn. He is one of eight individuals making up the academy’s first-ever graduating class.
“Map Academy is intentionally designed to support students marginalized by well-meaning, traditional systems,” said Rachel Babcock, the academy’s cofounder. “When you are on the margins, the students are kind of lost in those systems, they fall between the cracks.”
Babcock used to be the coordinator of alternative programs for Plymouth Public Schools. But she never quite felt like she was able to make meaningful changes. It seemed as though the district was constantly bumping up against reasons why the program couldn’t be enhanced, she said.
Babcock and Josh Charpentier, who also led Plymouth’s alternative programs, had long dreamed of a school focused on alternative students. Slowly, they started planning how to actually make it work.
Together, they made a map filled with red dots representing students who had dropped out of high school, were enrolled in an alternative program, or at risk of either. The final map, filled with 398 dots, served as inspiration for the high school’s name: Map Academy.
“Those dots are real kids. The prospects are so bleak for them,” Babcock said. “The frustration came from how many kids are left behind.”
In 2017, the cofounders received the charter they had applied for from the state and set out to obtain grant funding. The school opened last fall.
This year, 130 students were enrolled at the school, and the population will increase by 30 students each year until it hits a cap of 250.
The students found their way to Map Academy for a variety of reasons — homelessness, bullying, substance addiction, being a parent, mental illness, and more. The academy actively recruits individuals who have dropped out of other settings, and students come from 22 cities and towns, some as far as an hour away.
Part of the school’s mission is to make education work for the students, while still holding them to the same standards as any other high school.
Teachers work with students in the classroom, but academic materials are also available online. Students learn at their own pace. For example, if someone has to go on medical leave, that person can return and pick up where they left off. There are night and summer hours, as well as a small, close-knit team of teachers.
“I don’t think this school is for everybody, but it’s for people who can’t just sit in a classroom for six hours per day,” Smith said. “This school realizes that students have a life and issues outside of school.”
The small enrollment enables the school to be incredibly nimble, according to Babcock, allowing the administration to be attentive to every student.
In addition, much of the school does without the structure commonly seen in traditional settings. For example, there are no grade levels or letter grades. Students can only complete a course if they show comprehension in all concepts. It’s impossible to fail, but also impossible to slide by on the bare minimum.
“All those things that we think are true about schools, they don’t have to be,” Babcock said. “It’s so inflexible. Once you start to reimagine what it looks like, it’s pretty amazing.”
The school also offers support outside of academics by hiring social workers. Currently, the academy is searching to fill seven more staff positions next year. Babcock describes the right person for the job as entrepreneurial, open-minded, and “really frustrated with the status quo.”
Julia Robbins, 22, exemplifies the value of the school’s wraparound care. Robbins had intense family issues for much of her childhood, moving out on her own at age 16. In addition, Robbins was born with congenital glaucoma, losing her right eye. After an unsuccessful stint in night school, she dropped out completely.
After enrolling in Map Academy, she discovered a whole different level of assistance. The school has helped her find healthcare, obtain food stamps, figure out living situations, and get to doctors’ appointments. She credits her ability to graduate to these services.
Despite the inspiring stories that this year’s graduating class has yielded, Smith said he still hears those who disapprove of Map Academy. The critics, he said, label the school as a place for kids who are “bad or lazy.”
“It’s really not that,” Smith said. “It’s for kids who want to get better and have an education.”
Ysabelle Kempe can be reached at email@example.com.