Elidad Alesca met with his counselor at Lanier High School in Gwinnett County during re-enrollment before the start of the school year only to find out that he was behind in his course credits, attending as a sophomore instead of starting out his senior year as planned.
“So my counselor told me that there’s other things I should be looking at instead of going back to a regular school where you have to go at the pace of the class,” Alesca said.
His counselor referred him to a school he had never heard of before — Mountain Education Charter High School in Forsyth County.
The night school, open Monday-Thursday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., offers students like Alesca the chance to earn a diploma by taking classes at their own pace, finishing courses within as much or as little time as they need. It also offers another option to students who may not thrive in or be able to attend a traditional school.
Debra Moore, MECHS Public Relations and Scholarship coordinator, worked at South Forsyth High School within the DECA program for nearly 30 years and then within the Board of Education building before she began her part-time position at the charter school this past summer.
When she started her first year at the school, she said it captured her heart to see the impact it has on students who may not have been able to receive a high school education and diploma otherwise. The school serves a variety of students in different situations, and some just need extra support from staff members.
“I was at South Forsyth High School for the majority of my career, and you see all of these students excelling and everything is up at this level,” Moore said, raising her hand over her head. “What about those students who don’t excel at that level? What about those students with hardships? We have a lot of students who fall between the cracks who don’t feel comfortable in a traditional school, and Mountain Ed just embraces them and makes sure that they’re successful and confident. And those kids need that."
Kim Barnes, the site administrator in Forsyth County, said MECHS was first founded in 1993 to help at-risk students earn a diploma, and there are now 18 different sites throughout the region that serve 21 counties. The Forsyth site is located both behind the Board of Education building and in the Hill Educational Center near downtown Cumming.
The two sites in Forsyth currently serve more than 300 students, and staff members are sure to provide as much support to each student as they can.
Students typically come onto campus for face-to-face classes twice a week, and while they are there, a mentor with the school is checking in on them and asking how they are. They check on each student, no matter what their situation may be, to guarantee their needs are met.
“That student may have more contact with an adult in the building than they ever have,” Barnes said. “It might be annoying sometimes, but I guarantee the message is that we care.”
Barnes said students realize the staff wants them to set a goal, and that they have support based on their needs.
Whether a student needs extra time in the classroom, a ride home from campus, markers for their notetaking or a coat to keep them warm during the winter, staff members work to meet those needs.
School Social Worker Jacyln Barnum makes sure to keep cabinets full of food donated by Meals by Grace, deodorant, shampoo, soap, baby formula and diapers for teen parents stocked so students can simply stop by and pick up what they need when they need it.
“There is one student who is homeless and just living with different family members, and they’ll even sometimes purchase an Uber for him … to get him to school,” Moore said. “For some kids, that’s the difference between whether they are going to have a good life or not. That’s a pivotal point of, ‘Wait, somebody believes in me; somebody is watching after me. I’m going to get this diploma.’”
On the flipside, Barnes explained that MECHS can also help benefit students who are not at risk like Aleska who simply wants to catch up on class credits.
Since the school has a rolling enrollment period, Aleska was able to begin school in the past month. After only three weeks of working at his own pace, he is finishing up his world history course, and is ready to continue on his path to graduation.
Other students take the time to work a full-time job during the day, whether that be to support their family or to begin their career, and enjoy the flexibility that comes with class times in the evenings.
Madisyn Traub used to attend Forsyth Central High School, and she eventually made the decision to transfer to MECHS because other students bullied her on campus. She has been at the charter school for three years, and she has a much better time focusing on her schooling without having to worry about others around her.
Traub said it also helps that the classes are much smaller than those in a traditional classroom. Average classroom sizes range from 30-40 kids while, depending on the night, classes at MECHS may have only three to five students at a time. This gives teachers and mentors more quality time to spend with students to help with learning and develop a better relationship.
“The teachers have been a really big help,” Traub said. “They really do care about us, and they really do try to help as much as possible.”
Many of the staff members at MECHS also work for Forsyth County Schools in some capacity, with most of the teachers coming from West or South Forsyth High School where they teach during the day and at MECHS at night.
Staff members and students alike at the school see it as a sort of hidden gem in the county as many don’t know about the school or how it offers another option for students. Moore said that even as she worked in the Board of Education building right next door, she had no idea until she started working at the school what MECHS was all about.
“I definitely think more people should come here because I know people in different high schools have issues,” Traub said. “I did. But not a lot of people know what this is.”
Ways to help
Moore and other school leaders have been working this year to get the word out to the community, not only to help students who may not know about MECHS, but to also help serve current students.
Many of the resources provided to at-risk students on campus are provided by community members or local sponsors who donate food or items to help them to meet their needs.
The school always provides a meal to students when they arrive to campus, which Barnes said is huge for helping those who may need it, and beginning on Tuesday, Feb. 16, they launched a two-week-long student appreciation event where they started providing a special treat to students including meals from Chick-fil-A, Zaxby’s and other restaurants in the area.
They also began holding live, virtual raffle drawings to give students a chance to win prizes.
“We love to be able to just give them something tangible that they can take, and they love it, too,” Barnes said.
These small events were made possible by community sponsors, and Barnes emphasized that they also accept donations from individual community members who may just want to help provide monetary funds for a student scholarship or to provide items that a student might need.
The school also uses an app called Purposity, which allows users to follow the page and see exactly what some of the needs are in that moment. When a community member logs into the app, they may see on the MECHA Forsyth page that a teen mom needs formula for her baby. All they have to do is click a button that says, ‘Meet this need,’ and the formula is automatically ordered and sent to the school for Barnum to provide to the student who needs it.
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Barnes said the app makes providing donations fast and simple both for the donor and for the school. They are able to receive items more quickly and better get the word out about what the needs are.
For more information, users can download the app, and look for Mountain Education Forsyth.
Going forward, Barnes hopes to continue to spread the word about MECHS to students across North Georgia and the county so more students can find another option for schooling that works for them.
For Alesca, along with many others, MECHS offers a surprising new way to learn and move on into their career.
“I haven’t found any downsides,” Alesca said. “I’ve been telling my guardian that every two days, they come with a lot of upsides, and I’m like, ‘Where’s the downside?’ I just haven’t found one.”