Innovator: Chris Collins
This profile of an outstanding, innovative educator is part of the feature section “On the Leading Edge” in our annual Innovation Issue. Photos by Scott Buschman.
What’s the secret to getting continuation school students to work harder and improve attendance? Chris Collins, a science, health and PE teacher at McClellan High School in Antelope, Sacramento County, found that one solution is to let them play team sports, just like students in comprehensive high schools.
Continuation students are typically those who can’t succeed in regular high school due to attendance, behavior and academic issues. Most of their time is spent pursuing credit recovery so they can receive a diploma. Sports teams — a great motivator for students at traditional high schools — are usually lacking at continuation schools.
But that changed at McClellan when Collins decided his students deserved a league of their own. Initially, the idea came from them, says the Center Unified Teachers Association member.
“My students wondered why continuation students were not allowed to play sports,” he recalls. “And they discovered there was nothing prohibiting it at all.”
This realization led Collins to contact other continuation schools in Sacramento, Placer and Nevada counties to form a fledgling basketball league called the Alterative Athletic League in 2015-16. After a successful nine-week season, he received a grant from CTA’s Institute for Teaching, which paid one-time costs for equipment and uniforms so the league could expand to include flag football, volleyball and softball. All sports are coed.
At first Collins wasn’t sure how students would respond when given the chance to play ball.
“We have kids who battle depression and anxiety,” he says. “Some are parenting themselves. We have one who is currently living in a car with his grandmother. They have bad habits and defense mechanisms that can get in the way. Our students have both fear of failure and fear of success.”
Despite significant challenges, many students signed up. But the league’s success, Collins explains, is due to coaches taking a different approach.
“Unlike teams at comprehensive high schools, anyone with good attendance and grades can play. And if they cuss or act out, they don’t get cut from the team. They are told to sit down, and then we figure out how to get them back on the field. We understand that these kids don’t always have the best social skills. Our goal is to let them know we value them. We correct the action and value the child to get them back in the game.”
During a break from coaching an all-day flag football tournament at Roseville, Collins says he isn’t at all surprised that team sports positively impact students beyond the playing field.
“Attendance has improved. Students put out more effort to keep their GPA up so they are eligible to play. And it has fostered connections and relationships between students and teachers.”
Shon Davis, a junior, considers Collins a role model. “He cares about us and tells us the truth, even if it’s not pretty. He’s taught us how to come together as a team. I feel more motivated.”
Junior Destiny Ramsey says playing flag football and other sports makes her feel a sense of community. “I’m having fun and enjoying the connection with everyone on the team. I enjoy this program because it feels like family.”
Collins says the league is changing the way his community views continuation students — and the way students view themselves.
“Sometimes these kids are vilified,” he explains. “But when they do well in sports, success leads to more success. Kids start to believe they aren’t bad, and that they can learn things. They understand that they have intrinsic value and something to offer, like every human being.”