Wednesday, April 22, 2009

'Own it, fix it and move on'

Barge Levy retires, 16 years after starting Silver Creek Alternative School in a city park

Express Staff Writer

Aside from his role as director of the Silver Creek Alternative School, Barge Levy also teaches science and math at the school. Levy is shown here with students Karina Velasco and Ben Uecker. Photo by Willy Cook

Barge Levy knows what it's like to fall behind in school because of an inability to read properly. The director of the Silver Creek Alternative School struggled with a focusing problem in his right eye until age 22.

Extensive therapy at New York University allowed Levy to overcome the problem, and marked the beginning of his passion to help people become better readers. He said he entered the program reading less than 100 words a minute, and came out reading more than 800 words per minute.

"If I have a kid who comes in here and can't do math, it's usually because they can't read well enough," he said. "It's a reading problem, not a math problem. You've got to be able to read."

Levy, who founded Silver Creek Alternative School 16 years ago, is retiring at the end of this year.

When he started the school, resources were limited. For the first week and a half the students, most of them high school dropouts, didn't have a building. They met at a city park in Hailey and sometimes huddled around a large fire to stay warm.

"I have a soft spot in my heart for students who don't quite fit in to the normal routine," Levy said.

That's what the alternative school is all about—helping kids who don't quite fit in, to excel in an alternative learning environment. The school bills itself as a "flexible learning environment" for high-school students who "don't thrive in a traditional school setting." Levy describes them as "right-brain thinkers," or as youngsters who think out of the box. They tend to be freethinkers, creative and articulate. For one reason or another, they don't do well in a normal school setting.

Some of them have been in trouble, and some of them come from difficult home environments. Levy and the staff at Silver Creek try to help the students see beyond the past and find their own route to success.

"They have challenges in their lives that go beyond what other kids have to deal with," Levy said. "I just have tremendous respect for that. They are wonderful to work with.

"If you treat these kids dignity, that's exactly what you're going to get back. It's not magic, it just works."

Class sizes are much smaller at Silver Creek, which is part of the Blaine County School District. Levy and teachers Bing Parkinson and Jill Bailey can give more individual instruction to the school's 22 students, who are in grades 9-12. Reading is emphasized. The setting is more casual than regular school, and even the rules of behavior were designed by the students.

The policies fill one sheet of paper.

"It's really just common courtesy," Levy said. "They thought of the rules, they all signed it. I told them I'm going to hold them to it and they can change the rules by majority vote."

Ironically, Levy said, the rules are very similar to what adults or any group might come up with for civil working or living relationships. Teamwork is heavily emphasized, and Levy considers it a cornerstone to the success of the school.

It was the first lesson he taught.

Back in the park 16 years ago, Levy gave a group of 19 kids the task of getting over a neck-high rope without touching it. They couldn't go under it, and if anyone touched the rope, the whole group had to start over again.

"They had to figure out a way to get over it, and that required a lot of cooperation and trust and working together," he said. "Essentially, they had to start communicating. It's a pretty dynamic type of thing. When they were done, we had a cohesive group.

"That's what we stress here—interaction and trust and working together."

The concept evolved into a school motto: "Take care of yourself, take care of each other and take care of your school," which evolved into the school's current motto of "Own it, fix it and move on."

Levy said he has received significant support from the Blaine County School District and from the community for the past 16 years to help make the school a success.

"I couldn't even begin to list to you the number of things the community has done for this school," he said. "There are times when I had trouble even getting in the building because of all the computer equipment that someone had left for us at the front door."

Levy has dedicated a good part of his life to teaching in unorthodox settings. Before founding Silver Creek, he used a portable classroom inside of a school bus to travel from school to school in the district to teach "gifted and talented" students. He's also taught reading to prison inmates.

"I'm not ready to hang it up," said Levy, who plans to continue work on a computerized reading program that he developed. "I'm never going to stop teaching."

Terry Smith:

Silver Creek moving to new digs

Come next school year, the Silver Creek Alternative School will be moved to a new location near Wood River High School. The name will be changed too. It will then be called Silver Creek High School.

The school's restructuring was masterminded by Blaine County School District Assistant Superintendent Lonnie Barber, who said the move will give staff and students more space and will provide more opportunities for students to take elective courses offered at the high school. Barber would also like to expand the student population from the 22 now enrolled to about 40.

"We don't want to take their identity away," Barber said. "I think they're a little worried about that, but they don't have to be."

The Silver Creek school will be moved from its location on south Third Street in Hailey to the building that housed the science wing of the old high school. It is located to the east of the Community Campus. The district's Technology Department, which currently occupies the building, will be moved to the Silver Creek school site.

Silver Creek students are now allowed to take elective classes at the high school, but the logistics of transportation make it difficult. Offered electives include health and physical education classes, foreign languages, arts and music, speech and drama, technology and computers, creative writing, architectural and mechanical design, construction and medical technologies.

"I think the rumor was out there that we were going to close the school," Barber said. "That couldn't be further from the truth. We aren't closing, we're expanding."

Silver Creek teachers Bing Parkinson and Jill Bailey said they support the move.

"I wasn't fond of leaving my building, but as far as the kids are concerned, it's great," Bailey said. "By doing it, our students will be able to take classes they can't take now."

"We think it's an excellent idea," Parkinson said. "From what I can see, Dr. Barber is a very strong supporter of the alternative school."

Silver Creek Alternative School Director Barge Levy, who founded the school 16 years ago, is retiring at the end of the school year. He said he is satisfied that he is leaving the school in "good hands."

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