NHS sees positive results with alternative suspension program

by Nancy Vondrak

If the thought of being suspended from school conjures up images of a student being stuck at home, unable to attend classes and punished for being “a troublemaker,” Nordonia High School’s successful alternative to suspension may dispel that stereotype. Meet the Phoenix Alternative Learning Environment, a partnership program between the Akron Area YMCA and Nordonia Schools that strives to prove that intervention is the best way to overcome obstacles.

According to Nordonia High School Principal Casey Wright, the PALE program originated as a partnership between the Akron YMCA and Akron public schools. It expanded to other districts and has been incorporated at Nordonia for over 20 years. 

“Our belief is that the best way to keep students achieving academically is to keep them in school,” Wright explained. “The PALE program is an academic booster shot and a way of looking at in-school suspension differently.”

Wright also said he feels that Nordonia’s PALE program was transformed into something even better when Gary Ennis became the school’s in-school suspension coordinator in 2013. Ennis, a retired Macedonia police sergeant, was used to keeping a pulse on the community and its youth during his 25-plus years with the force. Wright said that Ennis has a way of interacting with students in a positive, reinforcing way that makes them aware of available resources so they can avoid repeat infractions.

Ennis explained that students who incur minor infractions of the school’s policies for non-physical offenses can be referred to the PALE program by a principal or counselor instead of traditional suspension. These infractions include cutting classes, excessive tardiness or misbehavior in class. A student in the PALE program will go to a separate room in the school that Ennis supervises for a few days to talk about why they are there, what they could have done better, and what resources can help them better handle situations in the future. School counselors, administrators and Ennis are all resources for these students.

“The whole concept of PALE at Nordonia High School is to keep kids in school and engaged in their studies while building character and learning to make better choices,” Ennis said. “When I started in this role, my goal was to make PALE less of a punishment and more of a learning experience.”

To do that, “Mr. E,” as he’s often called, focuses on building relationships with students. A second part of Ennis’s job is focusing on students’ academic recovery through the high school’s support services and teachers, with the goal of ensuring all students are eligible for graduation.

And the proof of the success of Nordonia’s PALE program is the student graduation rate.

“Since Ennis has been the coordinator of our PALE program, Nordonia High School has been able to graduate almost 100% of the seniors each year,” Wright said. “That didn’t happen before.”

Said Ennis, “Every kid I’ve had for academic recovery has graduated. It’s because of the character building and positive reinforcement of the PALE environment.”

Some graduates have kept in contact with Ennis and a few 2020 graduates asked him to hand them their diplomas during the graduation ceremony. ∞