Published 7:01 am Saturday, January 30, 2021

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Mariah Kiefer is using her experience of being an SMEC ALC graduate to stand against the stigma


Strength is standing up to the adversity in front of you and coming out a better person on the other side.

Mariah Kiefer is one of those people and now she’s using her experience as a graduate from the Southern Minnesota Education Consortium as a platform to speak out against the stigma associated with attending an Alternative Learning Center (ALC) school.

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“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my entire life,” Kiefer said Thursday from a room in the SMEC school, located just off Interstate 90 east of Austin. “I went through the hardest trials I’ve ever gone through. I was entering adulthood and almost lost my brother and lost myself. I wasn’t in a good situation for myself.”

Kiefer was every bit your typical student, looking forward to her senior year of high school at Southland Public Schools in 2019, eager to take the next steps toward her future.

Unfortunately, that was when life began falling apart.

Just five days before her 18th birthday, Kiefer’s brother was in a serious car crash and needed to be resuscitated at the scene before being transported to the hospital.

Kiefer is close with her brother, who is now living in a group home in the Twin Cities as he continues to work through the aftermath of the accident. She was left devastated. It affected her life, it affected her schooling.

“Everything was starting for my senior year and [doctors] were trying to figure out if they were going to pull the plug,” Kiefer said with stark honesty. “I felt like everything was crumbling around me.”

Kiefer refused to leave her brother’s side for long, even for her birthday, despite efforts by her parents.

She just came right back to be with Tyler, but it was taking a toll on Kiefer.

“I tried going back [to school], but I just couldn’t do it,” Kiefer said, despite knowing that she wanted to do it.

“I knew I wanted to graduate,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be able to move on and go to college. But I didn’t want to leave my brother alone.”

Kiefer would come to know options, however, and one of those options was attending SMEC’s ALC. It was a chance to get back on track as educators work at the school to find alternative ways for students to learn and succeed and to move past hurdles and help them reach goals based on one-on-one approach to learning.

“This is a place we can individualize [education],” said Dan Armagost, SMEC Executive Director. “Try to find what their passion is. The things that are unique to the students. Stand-and-deliver is not the way to best learn for some students. We can narrow it down.”

For Kiefer, it was life-changing. As Tyler recovered, Kiefer found reason to return to school in a way that helped her catch up.

She got to do this with a familiar face — Kathy Piller, ALC department lead at SMEC. Kiefer’s brother Tyler was Piller’s first graduate.

“I was able to get some homework done,” Kiefer said. “When things finally slowed down and Tyler was stable and getting happier, I was able to focus on schooling again.”

The other side

As Kiefer’s life continued to improve through her education at the ALC, she started to notice the unfair stigma that goes along with ALC learning, that somehow students that attend these schools are less intelligent than other students, or there is some mental issue that prevents students from attending a “normal” school.

It was something she was aware of prior to her attending ALC, but as she utilized the school’s alternative mode of learning, it began to anger and frustrate her.

She began to hear first-hand the derogatory and demeaning comments. She remembered seeing something of that nature on a social media site. She was hearing it from not only her peers, but from adults as well.

“You don’t know what this kid has gone through,” Kiefer remembered thinking. “You don’t know what is going on with him. You know nothing about him. The reason he came here is to get a diploma. It really bothered me.”

The next day, Kiefer put to paper her thoughts, wanting to use her experience to advocate not only for the students needing the ALC education, but for the school that is bringing education to the students where they are.

“They are already facing challenging situations,” Kiefer said. “Kids that go here are already so challenged.”

Kiefer has since made incredible strides, catching up and graduating on time. She is currently taking classes with Riverland Community College with goals of completing her two-year degree in human services before moving on to Winona State University at Rochester to get a degree in social work.

She hopes to someday be in a situation to help kids as the teachers at SMEC were able to help her.

And for those students still feeling the stigma and looking at attending an ALC program, her message is simple.

“Take the jump,” she said. “Unfortunately, I feel the stigma will always be there. The thing is you are doing right by yourself. Get a high school diploma. Don’t let anything deter you from that. If that is what you need and are able to get it, go for it.

Watching the progress

Kiefer is not the first to graduate from the SMEC ALC, nor will she be the last, but her story is indicative of what ALC’s can do for students.

It’s just as likely that staff from ALC’s are as inspired by students as peers and parents are. That certainly is the case for the staff at SMEC.

“It’s amazing to watch them flourish,” Piller said. “Some of our kids come in pretty quiet, defeated. Earning that first quarter credit, you start to see the weight lifted off them.”

Before a student is enrolled at the school, staff meet with the student and parents to get a gauge of strengths and weaknesses. In many ways the schools facilitate success in ways other schools can’t.

There are washers and dryers on site if a student needs clean clothes before an interview or work.

“If there is a barrier, we take care of them,” Armagost said. “We’ll be there.”

Staff at SMEC recognize the same stigma Kiefer does, but they also recognize the success and now, Kiefer is one of those successes.

“It means we’re doing something right here,” Armagost said, looking at Kiefer sitting across a long desk. “When we see the successes and the students coming back … they are taking a stand.”

For instructors like Piller, it’s an experience like none other.

“It’s pretty emotional because a lot of these kids start in sixth and seventh grad,” she said. “They are here for six years, some a year. To see them grow and flourish into outstanding adults who follow their passions — it’s amazing.”

Kiefer is excited to be moving forward again, excited to have plans, excited to have her brother. She is at this point because she had an alternative and a path forward, free of stigma and judgement by students and teachers around her at SMEC.

She credits the staff with being a major part of how she got to this point.

“The staff here is really what got me through,” Kiefer said. “Not only through school but emotionally and what I was facing. The staff were amazing in getting me through school and getting me through that part of my life.”

Perhaps just as important, if not more important, Kiefer has found something more in herself.

“It made me proud of myself,” Kiefer said. “I took a stand I really believed in. I’ve been dealing with this since last year and I always kept quiet. Today’s a good time. I’m a success story. I’m getting good grades, I’m passionate about what I’m doing.”

And to the kids still learning how to stand?

“Keep going,” she said. It’s hard, but it gets easier.”

Mariah’s letter

My name is Mariah Kiefer and I’m a graduate of the Alternative Learning Center (ALC).

Mariah Kiefer

I started attending last year during one of the hardest time frames of my life. My oldest brother had been in a car accident around a week before my senior year started. He sustained serious injuries from the car accident including being paralyzed from the neck down and was put on a ventilator.

These injuries are going to be a lifelong struggle.

Due to the car accident I missed months of school supporting my brother in his recovery and spending time with my family. I spent every day in the hospital that I could, including my 18th birthday, and I got behind in my schooling. I felt very lost and like I was having my life crumble in front of my eyes.

I decided that the best option for me was to attend the ALC because I was able to do my schooling online while I was with my brother and I got caught back up and was even able to graduate on time. Before the car accident I had been doing PSEO (college classes) at Riverland Community College. I had started this my sophomore year of high school and was making amazing grades. I just unfortunately had life happen to get in the way like many kids at the ALC. The ALC was even able to provide a form of PSEO called Early Middle College and I continued to make college credits. They even were able to help me fill out applications for college.

Not only did the ALC allow me to do the impossible they supported me every step of the way with the life situations I was facing. They have the ability to be more one on one to help you get back to a somewhat normal life. There are more than 162,000 kids attending an ALC (17% of Minnesota Public Schools according to the Minnesota Department of Health) all throughout Minnesota. My question for you then is why is there so much stigma around an ALC?

Not only have I heard about it from my peers but even some adults talk about how the ALC is easy and shouldn’t qualify as a high school diploma. As a graduate of the ALC I feel that there is a necessity for a better education about what the ALC is and who better to hear about it from that student that went there?

I was expected to do homework, turn in assignments, take exams, and get good grades just like every other High School student. All of the students that go to the ALC have one goal. They want their High school diploma just like every other student.

So why are we discouraging the ALC? Why are we discouraging a better educated student who just wants to graduate but is having a hard home life, got pregnant, having problems with mental health, has learning disabilities, has to go to work to help pay bills, or even having life events like a car accident turn your life upside down and sideways.

I was lucky enough to have an ALC to access so I could go on with my life and go to college. Now I’m continuing my education at Riverland Community College and I’m going for my Human Services Degree and plan on getting my Social Work Degree to help kids through a crisis. A kid like me.

The ALC gave me more than I could ever ask for and I will never be able to thank the staff there enough. I still go back there and talk to staff about college and life.

I am one success story, and there are many more. So, please help the next generation by not adding to the stigma around the ALC. Let them go to school without students hearing “You’re a SPED”, “You couldn’t pass normal high school,”  “Short bus” and even “the bad kids school”

Sincerely, a graduate of the Southern Minnesota Education Consortium (SMEC)