Steve Connolly’s approach to alternative education makes a big impact at Fair View
It’s 11:45 a.m., and Steve Connolly has finally found a few spare moments to dig through his swamped e-mail inbox.
“A principal’s life comes in five-minute chunks,” he says.
Two or three minutes pass before Connolly is interrupted by a ringing telephone.
“Send him in,” Connolly says with a slight hint of a sigh.
Moments later a frustrated student enters Connolly’s office, backpack slung around his shoulder and teacher in tow. The student has been kicked out of class for throwing a fit when asked to read a full page from the assigned text of John Hersey’s Hiroshima.
“It’s all stuff that happened before I was born,” the teen says quite confidently. “I don’t know why it’s important to me.”
Without missing a beat, Connolly grabs control of the situation, listening to both the student’s and the teacher’s versions of the story with equal interest and attention.
What the student doesn’t know, however, is that Connolly is already working his magic and subtly instigating a change in attitude. By conversation’s end, the student leaves the office having agreed to try harder—not from fear of punishment, but because Connolly has convinced him that he wants to finish high school and earn a diploma.
Connolly works at Fair View High School in Chico, an alternative-education facility with around 250 students. Besides Fair View, Butte County has alternative-education high schools in Oroville, Paradise, Gridley and Durham, reported Dave Scott, director of pupil personnel services for Chico Unified School District and one of Connolly’s predecessors.
In just around three years of work, Connolly has seen Fair View make tremendous strides in everything from rising attendance and graduation rates to a sharp decline in students’ office referrals.
“Steve’s always been very clear about the direction the program needs to go in,” Scott said.
One of Connolly’s major achievements has been retooling Fair View’s curriculum to match that of the other major high schools in the area, says Bernie Vigallon, district director of alternative education, who along with Connolly and Scott helped lay the framework for what Fair View is today.
While teenagers can utilize alternative-education options for a variety of reasons, many students land at Fair View because of attitudinal or behavioral problems at previous schools. Places like Fair View, located just off the Esplanade on East Avenue, offer students a realistic chance of earning a diploma rather than just quitting school altogether after, say, flunking out or being expelled. Whether because of problems with gangs, drugs, family or just basic motivational issues, Fair View is full of students who other educators have given up on, Connolly says.
And while you may expect a principal working in alternative education—a strenuous and often thankless job—to have experienced some life-altering event that clearly illuminated that career path, Connolly just sort of stumbled into the field and discovered his talents while exploring other interests.
“When I was coaching basketball, I always connected with the alt-ed students, and not everyone does,” Connolly said. “I think I probably also had a high tolerance for their shenanigans.”
Connolly, 55, wearing a light purple shirt covered up by a sleeveless black fleece, sits in his chair watching his students walk by. His imposing 6-foot-6 stature is offset by a welcoming pair of blue eyes. He wears a cell phone strapped around his waist and an identification card around his neck, although his casual banter with passing students makes his familiarity around campus quite clear.
Those who imagine a principal’s job as one of comfort, prestige or luxury need only look around Connolly’s office to see otherwise.
“I don’t think many people go into this job for the recognition or the thank-you’s,” he said.
Connolly’s digs are spare. There’s little more than a desk, a couple of chairs, an old boom-box and some bookshelves full of titles like “Motivating the Unmotivated” and “Beyond Discipline” lining the sea-green tile. On the wall, a poster reveals Fair View’s student expectations. The ABCs have become “attendance, behavior and credits.” And the three R’s now stand for “respect, responsibility and resiliency.”
The focal point of Connolly’s office, however, is the series of rectangle-shaped windows facing the hallway, allowing him to see students passing by and letting them know whether he is available for help—or perhaps just to talk some hoops.
“Students love him,” Vigallon says. “He provides a lot of hope and he never gives up on a kid.”
Connolly traveled a winding road on his way to Fair View. A graduate of Burlingame High School, Connolly transferred from College of San Mateo to Chico State University in 1970. The whole time, basketball consumed Connolly’s life; he was constantly either playing or coaching the sport.
While playing in a Chico city league tournament during his senior year, Connolly was recruited to play basketball in Australia, an offer he quickly jumped on. He returned to the States just two years later to start earning his credential and to teach physical-education classes at Chico State, but he didn’t stay away from Australia for long. Connolly returned to coach and play basketball for four more years before coming back to California again.
In 1981, he got married and soon after took a job at Hamilton Union High School, in nearby Hamilton City.
Connolly’s career in education administration slowly began to take shape. He soon worked his way up to vice principal and later director of alternative education for the Hamilton Union School District.
Fast-forward to 1995, when Connolly, now with two kids, headed back Down Under for a year while considering a more permanent relocation.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what a chance, for my kids to live along the Barrier Reef and wear school uniforms and be little Aussies,’ “ Connolly said.
Instead, Connolly opted to keep the family in California, deciding that after 30 years of playing and coaching, he’d had enough of basketball.
“It wasn’t coaching basketball I was tired of,” he says. “It was basketball in general.”
With a new career outlook, Connolly became principal of the Center for Alternative Learning, a seventh- through ninth-grade transition school used to filter students back into mainstream high schools. After seven years of that, the Chico Unified School District asked Connolly if he wanted to take over at Fair View as well.
Today, CAL is a different entity, as increased interest and long waiting lists provided signs that the school was being seen as less of a transitional opportunity and more of an alternate junior-high option. As a result, CAL splintered into different projects, including Academy for Change, which consists of students with more severe disciplinary, attitude or attendance problems.
AFC students must wear collared shirts and ties, and the goal of the program is for students to transfer into Fair View or back into the high schools of their choice. With AFC located on Fair View’s campus, the program works as an unintentional but effective motivational tool.
Take the teen who balked at the history book. At the end of his meeting, Connolly said: “So, you gonna go back to class and try to read some more of Hiroshima so you can graduate?”
“Yeah,” the student replied.
“And are you gonna do it without wearing a shirt and tie?” Connolly said playfully, with the student breaking a slight smile.
Connolly’s calm, collected demeanor and casual sense of humor suit him well. Many alternative education students are not looking for any sort of authority figure, no matter how patient or understanding. Feeling threatened on a frequent basis comes with the job, Connolly says.
Once, while Connolly was working in alternative education before his days at Fair View, police officers even advised him to think about possibly relocating his family. His name had appeared on a gang-related hit list. The homes of two of the people listed at the top of the list had been shot at during drive-bys.
Still, Connolly maintains an unshakable passion for the value and necessity of what Fair View is trying to accomplish.
“Our students have goals and aspirations just like everyone else,” Connolly said. “The difference is that they’ve had a lack of support in the path they have chosen to follow.”
Tolerance is the key factor in maintaining positive and productive relationships with Fair View students, Connolly insists. The goal is to try to see exactly where the student is coming from.
“It’s about gaining understanding rather than giving punishment for violating a rule,” Connolly said.
Students shouldn’t expect too much latitude or praise from him, however.
“I’m not going to give you a cookie if you’re good,” he said. “I’m not into that.”
Whatever Connolly is doing, it’s working. Just three years ago, Fair View graduated 85 students, the most in its history and a jump from the usual 40 to 60 students per year on average. (In 2004-05 it had 54 graduates.) Furthermore, by making simple changes like starting school an hour later and having one-on-one talks with students about missing classes, Connolly has seen attendance rates steadily increase. Daily attendance rates for Fair View are between 85 and 95 percent, a drastic increase from the 65-75 percent of CAL and Fair View’s beginnings. The number of referrals to the principal’s office has dropped by a factor of 10, numbering in the low hundreds instead of around 2,000 in a year.
Connolly is reluctant to take too much credit, repeatedly pointing out the work of Fair View’s full-time staff.
“I’m lucky to be in Chico,” he said. “It takes a special edge to work at Fair View because of the highs and lows we experience with our students.”
Thanks to small classroom ratios that average around 20 pupils per teacher, Fair View students receive care and attention from their instructors. Consequently, the teachers become extremely familiar with each student’s strengths, weaknesses and disciplinary tendencies, allowing for weekly meetings where staff members discuss how to reach or help a given student more successfully, Connolly says.
Brian Kehoe, a computer lab teacher, has been at the school for five years, dating back to its original location on 11th Street and Park Avenue. Kehoe, 43, says Fair View has been the best work environment he’s ever experienced. A good portion of this, he believes, can be linked directly to Connolly and the trust that has firmly evolved between everyone at the school.
“It’s nice to have confidence in your boss to look at the big picture and do what’s right for everyone,” Kehoe said, adding: “He’s compassionate. He’s not going to say, ‘Oh, who cares if you were molested by your father; you need to sit up straight and learn about the Treaty of Versailles.’ “
Connolly pays such close attention to the inner workings at Fair View that he went so far as to scout out which room would play to each teacher’s strengths as the staff was preparing for last year’s move to the current location at the former Jay Partridge Elementary School.
Kehoe’s class is working on an in-depth three-dimensional rendering of the campus, accounting for every door, window and hallway. The computer class is just one of the school’s new programs and electives. Line dancing and tai-chi are just a start to what will hopefully become a full range of selections to help students find and solidify their interests, Connolly says.
The school also has its “Careers Course,” where students can receive training from local experts in fields such as cosmetology and media arts. By next year, Connolly hopes to add auto-detailing and culinary-arts programs to the mix.
Creativity also is emphasized at Fair View, and several students recently had their work printed in the Paradise-produced Voice magazine. For those interested in the more traditional education path, Fair View offers both Butte College and Chico State tracks to facilitate college transitions.
One of Fair View’s most impressive elements may be its parenting program. Featuring anywhere from five to 20 young women in both the prenatal portion and the after-birth parenting portion, it received a Golden Bell award given by the California School Board Association for exemplary programs. Along with offering advice and courses to help students adjust to motherhood, the program offers day-care services.
Jessica Thompson is a 19-year-old self-described “super senior” who has been in and out of Fair View since the 10th grade. Having just passed her exit exams, Thompson has used the parenting program to help care for her 4-month-old son while she finishes up her last four and a half credits.
Connolly proved to be a big help to her.
“I missed a lot of school and really wasn’t expecting to be let back in,” Thompson says. “He’s been very patient with me.”
After graduation, she hopes to get a job and attend Butte College.
“I know some people don’t like him [Connolly] just because of the position he’s in,” she says. “But I think he’s a really good guy, and he’s helped me out a lot.”
As the six-week sessions come and go, all the students will choose their paths and eventually leave Fair View’s halls behind. Some will graduate, some will flunk out and some will land in juvenile hall, Connolly says. But whatever the outcome, he hopes that their time with him manages to make some kind of a difference.
“All we really want to do is try to paint a brighter picture for our students,” he says.
What he ultimately wants, however, is for students to come to Fair View and earn their diplomas for no one other than themselves. By staying even-keeled and refusing to forcibly dictate a student’s decisions, Connolly is perhaps slyly doing them the biggest favor they never knew how to ask for. If they mess up, they know who’s to blame. And when they graduate, the pride and satisfaction is theirs.