(TNS) — ATHENS, Ala. — All her life, the classroom hasn't been right for Haley Hargrove.
She'd sit there like the other students, feeling unlike the other students. At Ardmore Middle School, she'd look to the front of the classroom, trying to make out what the teacher was teaching. It was difficult, being deaf.
"The teacher was always facing the board instead of facing us," said Hargrove, 16.
Earlier this month, she sat in a spacious, quiet room with tables and chairs and sofas, among other students on their MacBook Airs with headphones plugged in, working through their own, self-paced, online curriculum. Full-time teachers, one for every core subject, waited on their beck and call. A banner with Leonardo da Vinci's face overlooks the room.
"Before, I was feeling like I needed to be in a group, or I'd be the weirdo," Hargrove said. "Here, I feel comfortable."
Welcome to the Athens Renaissance School.
Hargrove is one of 535 K-12 students who have found their place here, in a converted library building now with the Athens City Schools logo above its front doors. Some come here from their homes in town, and others, like Hargrove, come from out-of-town.
The school district that enrolls 3,400 opened the building in January — a home base for a concept that Athens Superintendent Trey Holladay started as a principal at Oxford High before he left in 2013 for the system up north.
In Oxford, he encountered students whose personal situations didn't fit in with a typical, seven-hour day at school. They'd drop out.
"I was looking for a way to keep kids in school," Holladay said. "What we tried to find was a way to move kids out of the traditional classroom and into a non-traditional classroom and still meet their needs."
So, he orchestrated an alternate pathway to graduation: one completely through an online program, with class lessons at the ready for students' convenience. They could come to school at certain times during the week and meet face-to-face with teachers.
Holladay carried that concept to Athens and developed it into what it is now: the Renaissance School, a nearly $4 million investment that is the realization of legislation passed in 2013. The Local Control School Flexibility Act allows school systems to apply to the Department of Education for exemptions from state regulations to create "innovation plans."
Since the act passed, 23 districts have been approved for plans. Athens' application requested no limits on the number of online courses a student could take and also asked that credit be given for some of those courses. The system was also cleared to charge a fee per course for part-time students enrolled at other districts and to graduate students through the Renaissance School.
"We have traditionally ran schools in an industrial model that was put in place, gosh, over 50 years ago," state Superintendent Tommy Bice said. "It's kind of archaic when you think of running a school that needs to happen at a certain place at a certain time. In this technology-rich environment with information available 24/7, it doesn't really make sense to do it that way any more."
Fitting a need
Holladay calls the Renaissance School "a non-charter charter school" — public, but for students who prefer not to be in a public school setting. He estimates it fits the need for 5 percent of public education's student population. "This is for unique situations," he said.
It's for those like Hargrove, whose mother saw her discouraged and depressed at a traditional middle school.
"I've seen her pull out of that since she changed to this school," Sandy Hargrove said.
It's for Courtney Franklin, 17, a competitive gymnast who felt conflicted about missing school to travel for events.
"It was like school was telling me I couldn't do gymnastics any more," she said.
It's for Layton Romine, 13, who previously at Athens Middle School felt overwhelmed and anxious among crowds.
"I wanted to find something more one-on-one," he said. "I found my answer here."
The Renaissance School has a nursery for its six students who are mothers. Some students came here to escape bullying.
"What I've realized is, for whatever reason, life happens," said Joanna May, the school's principal, who was previously principal at Athens Middle School. "If life has happened to you, we're an answer. You don't have to just walk away from school."
Upon enrolling, students and their parents sit down with May to form personalized plans. Their courses are assigned based on their transcripts. They decide with May how often they should meet with teachers at the school.
The demand has the principal admittedly feeling overwhelmed; since Holladay rolled out the online curriculum at Athens in 2014, he said, enrollment has increased from roughly 20 to 535. He said that's largely because of out-of-district students finding out about the Renaissance School.
Holladay is convinced the school is financially sustainable, in part because of the boost it's giving to the system's enrollment, spelling an expected boost in funding.
"For every 75 kids, we'll add personnel," he said.
The aim for change
Kyle Turner is one of the school's five full-time teachers, overseeing the math curriculums. She's taught in Athens City Schools classrooms for 23 years. Now, she's messaging online with students at any time of the day and seeing them at the Renaissance School.
"It's a change, but I love it," she said. "When you're standing in a room of 30 students, it's hard to make a personal connection and really sit down and work with them, and that's what I get to do here."
Change, advocates say, is needed in Alabama schools.
"There's a lot more room now for creativity and innovation across the state," said Caroline Novak, president of Alabama's A+ Education Partnership. "We have the opportunity to really rethink high school in a lot of ways."
Change isn't easy, Bice said.
"In small rural areas in Alabama, there's a lot of focus on tradition and the way they've always done things," he said. "Change can be uncomfortable."
As it was for some in Athens when Holladay came to town.
"But he got an idea in his head that there were kids out there who weren't being served," said his wife, Deborah Holladay, a teacher at the Renaissance School.
She looked past the front door, toward the adjacent elementary school yard where kids were running around a track.
"Why not fix the public schools?"
©2016 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.