Return to Headlines

KCSS serves students with unique needs

The focus of the Knoxville Center for Student Success (KCSS) has evolved in the five years since Eric Thomas became principal. Initially the school was designed to serve as a way station for students transitioning from incarceration or suspensions back to one of District 150’s three traditional high schools and as a way to add supports for chronically truant students. For increasing numbers of students, however, KCSS has become not a temporary stop, but their “home” high school.

“We offer a different structure for students who may not have had a successful freshmen and sophomore year and are behind on credits,” explains Thomas. “We don’t have big hallways or homecoming or prom, although we do have our own celebrations. We’re low-key and there are fewer distractions so students can focus on catching up on the credits they need and completing high school on time.”

The school offers extended opportunities to catch up. The school day has nine class periods, rather than seven and the computer lab with Compass Learning is open for three extra hours each Monday through Thursday afternoon as well as during the summer months, provided funding exists. By having online classes mixed with teacher-instructed classes, students are afforded the opportunity to catch up on credits where they have fallen behind due to various life obstacles they are facing.

The unusual structure means that a student who has fallen behind can earn 11 credits in a year, rather than the traditional seven. Some of the students have young children and many have jobs, so offering flexibility is important in helping them earn their high school diploma. One recent graduate, a 21-year-old young man, returned to school because, although he had worked several jobs, he knew his chances for keeping a job or advancing were limited without a high school diploma.

The students travel to KCSS from all corners of Peoria. Each student is given a CityLink bus pass each day to travel to and from school.

The school is housed in a compact modern office building on Knoxville Avenue in central Peoria, blending in with neighboring medical and law offices. The building houses only seven classrooms, a two-room Compass Learning center, a small library and a cafeteria. There are no facilities for physical education so most students are able have their PE credits waived. Students also have fewer choices in electives such as foreign languages or fine arts than are offered at the traditional high schools.

The small size of the school, however, can be an advantage. For many KCSS students, life obstacles mixed with the bustle and anonymity of a high school with over 1,000 students can present too many social and emotional challenges.

Eric Thomas KCSS
Principal Eric Thomas chats with students in the KCSS
Compass Learning lab. On a recent afternoon every computer
station in the school's lab was being used by students
completing credits for graduation.

The school does not receive Title I funding. “We do things differently,” says Thomas. “We have a small staff and we all work well together.”

Thomas credits past and current District Administration's support and flexibility for the program’s success in reaching its challenging clientele.

“We also have some great volunteers,” says Thomas. Following a tour of the school four years ago, Peoria At Large City Council member Chuck Weaver and his wife Laurie Weaver suggested to Thomas that the new kitchen facilities be used for a weekly cooking class. Since then, Laurie and her sister, SuAnne Krick have visited the school each week. The class is used as a behavior and academic incentive, usually drawing 6 - 8 students. "We teach them about nutrition and healthy eating, but mostly it's about relationships and making their experience richer. You really do build relationships when you spend an afternoon rolling out pie dough or make cookies from scratch." The cooking program was initially funded by a $1,000 grant from Weaver's Leaders Change Peoria organization. Now the students plan, prepare and host a fund raising dinner at the school each spring to pay for groceries and supplies.

Goals for the future of KCSS include additional counseling for students and to help students look forward to the next step in their education by familiarizing them with choices such as Illinois Central College and military service.

For students who have faced more obstacles and hardships than many of their teenage peers, KCSS offers a place of respite and a solid foundation to build a better future.