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The alternative way is the way for some

Students who go to an alternative school like the Renaissance Academy often get stereotyped.

"There are negative images out there about these kids," says new Renaissance Academy Coordinator Linda Berg. "They're sometimes seen as losers, stoners, thugs, dropouts, teenagers who can't cut it at the regular high school. I can tell you this: All those views are just myths.

"In general, they're great kids, just like kids everywhere else. They've had barriers in their lives that the average teenager hasn't had to overcome."

The Renaissance Academy, located inside the River Falls Academy (the old Meyer Middle School building), is home to 40-60-some high school-age students each year.

Most come from the local school district. Others transfer through the state's open enrollment period or during off times when they must "private pay" to get in.

New students are admitted each quarter. Enrollment typically rises as the school year wears on.

Students and their parents must commit to the Renaissance program. Some students are referred by the high school, but enrolling in the school is voluntary.

"What you usually find is that these students don't function well in a traditional school setting," Berg said. "They need a different, more creative, approach to learning what we provide. The class sizes are smaller (5-15), the school itself is physically small, and there's more individualized instruction and methods for them to do their assignments."

Berg said some Renaissance students have low self-esteem. Others can be shy or withdrawn. "They've been picked on, ridiculed, judged. Here, they have a safe place to act more themselves. They become comfortable, and in many cases that brings out their hidden talents."

Like River Falls High School, the Renaissance Academy requires students complete four years of English, two years of math, two years of science and two years of social studies to earn a diploma.

Unlike the high school, Renaissance students must get either an A or a B on all assignments and projects.

"If they don't get one of those grades, they must redo the work until they do," Berg said. "We set the bar higher. Our students need this because it encourages them to strive and think better."

The Renaissance Academy also requires students to finish two years of Spanish, civics, careers and Capstone classes. The latter two get students focused on preparing for a profession.

Berg said that Carole Mottaz, who started and created the Renaissance Academy model, stressed job placement and career study throughout the curriculum.

"What I'd like to do after I catch up with my own learning here is to bring that model up to 21st century standards, especially the technology aspect," Berg said. "Today, even an assembly line worker has to calibrate some machine on a computer. All workers have to be technologically sound."

At the Renaissance Academy, career explorations start with freshmen students.

"It has to start at that level," Berg says. "It could mean job shadowing an electrician to find out if that's what you're really interested in or whether maybe you should change gears and look elsewhere.

"What are you going to do in four years? A certain job or go on to post-secondary education? I want them to keep an eye on the prize."

Berg said the Renaissance Academy has a fine track record. Last year half the 22 graduates went to further their education at either a university or technical college.

She said that's comparable to the ratio for a regular high school but definitely above the ratio of most alternative schools.

The small-school setting makes for close ties between teachers and students. That leads to opportunities to build trust. Students, occasionally, get chances to prove they're reliable.

Berg said she excused a student recently to go for a job interview during the school day. The student had to family babysit at home because her mom worked a night shift.

"She wanted this job, it was bothering her that she couldn't get away to apply, and it had stopped her from learning in class," Berg said. "We used it as a teachable moment, even doing a mock interview with her before she left the school."

Renaissance students start school later in the morning and go later in the afternoon. They typically have Fridays off unless they have work to make up.

Despite the bad rap associated with alternative schools, Berg, new to this area, said that River Falls seems different.

One day she wandered Main Street, stopping in shops and offices and identifying herself. She said feedback to the Renaissance Academy was upbeat.

"People were very supportive of what it does. In fact, they seemed to really embrace the Renaissance program. That was really cool to hear. I've never experienced that kind of reaction to an alternative school before."

Berg, 48, lives and commutes from Chippewa Falls where her husband Kyle runs an Edward Jones Investment office.

She came to the Renaissance Academy from CESA 10, one of the statewide regional consortiums that serve public school districts. At CESA 10 she oversaw the special-education department.

Berg was also a principal at another alternative school, the Eau Claire Academy.

In her work she finds herself always gravitating toward "non-traditional students."

"I just connect with them, find them interesting," Berg said.

The Bergs have two young adult daughters: Ivy, 20 who attends the University of Minnesota-Duluth; and Kelsey, 18, who attends St. Scholastica, also in Duluth.

In her spare time Berg bikes, reads lots of fiction, kayaks and breeds a pet golden retriever.

She adds, "There's not that much else about me. I'm a very regular person."