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PLACE Academy students Paradise Ivie (l) and Allison Miller (r) flank teacher Amy Shafer.

Two months ago, Paradise was lost. Today, she finds herself in a wonderful PLACE.

Paradise Ivie is a 24-year-old former DMPS student who is on the brink of becoming the first graduate from the district’s Personalized Learning and Career Enhancement (PLACE) Academy.

PLACE Academy officially opened on November 12 and 22 students have enrolled so far to take care of their unfinished high school business. It’s the latest branch of a growing outreach effort spearheaded by Mimi Willoughby, DMPS Academic Pathways Supervisor.

DMPS partners with Des Moines Area Community College, United Way, Iowa Employment Solutions, and the Iowa Department of Education to make PLACE possible. The program serves former district students between the ages of 21-25 who aged out of traditional high school before getting a diploma.

Campus hours are Tuesday and Thursday nights from 5:00-8:00 PM at the Kurtz Opportunity Center, but learning plans are customized, and that’s not the only perk for pupils.

  • PLACE Academy is a free program.
  • Each student has access to career coaching and post-secondary opportunities.
  • Childcare is provided at no extra cost.
  • All PLACE students receive a free DART pass.
  • Academic instruction includes support in special education and English language learner methods.

Paradise was so close and yet so far. When she reached out to her longtime friend Allison Miller last fall she was calling from a homeless shelter and didn’t realize she was only a couple credits shy of a diploma. In short order a lot of moving parts began falling into place.

“Allison and Paradise were here at the Welcome Center (also housed at Kurtz) getting their kids registered,” said Willoughby. “Faculty recognized them as former students and we told them about PLACE.”

It sounded like the proverbial offer they couldn’t refuse to both Paradise and Allison, and Allison’s husband Richard. All three are now back in school at PLACE.

“When they said free childcare included I was in,” said Paradise, who has two young children. “This is like wishing you had the chance at a do-over and having it come true. And now I’m only one course away from graduating.”

Amy Shafer teaches that course, World History, and in another twist of kismet, she remembered Paradise as a little girl.

“I’ve known her mom for a long time,” said Shafer, a ten-year veteran DMPS teacher who moonlights at PLACE in addition to her “day job” in the Flex Academy at North High. “The teachers here (there are currently six) recognized other names, too, when we were recruiting for PLACE.”

Once the plan for PLACE was in place, the word had to be spread to hundreds of eligible former students. A master list was compiled and divvied up amongst PLACE faculty and staff who cold-called candidates to invite them back to high school.

“Some we couldn’t reach and others had gotten GEDs,” said Shafer. “There were even a few who are deceased. But as a teacher, there’s nothing better than a story like this one where you reconnect with a former student you’d lost track of and wondered about. Paradise is motivated now and doing great work. And she has plans for the future, too.”

That’s where Som Montgin enters the picture. She works for program co-sponsor Iowa Employment Solutions and is a regular face at PLACE. Montgin is a North High grad (Class of 2004) who is helping Paradise craft a plan to earn CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) credentials after she officially becomes the first PLACE graduate.

“We can help find financial assistance and all of the other things that go with planning for post-secondary education and training,” said Montgin. “I am here to build relationships with these students so they know they can trust me as an advocate for them.”

If you imagine PLACE as a place with a grim ambience populated by overmatched young adults carrying too-heavy loads, you would be as pleasantly surprised by what you find there as Paradise and Allison were when they discovered it.

“I want to become a juvenile probation officer,” said Allison on Tuesday night, sitting across the desk where Richard was doing schoolwork. “I want to be in a position to help kids who deserve help.”

The Millers already had three kids when they recently took in Allison’s two younger brothers. But their already crowded household didn’t stop them from insisting that Paradise and her kids come stay there temporarily when Paradise called Allison from that shelter a couple of months ago.

Listening to the old friends cheerfully, optimistically describe their circumstances and plans for the future you begin to marvel at the upbeat vibe that pervades at this PLACE. Call it the school spirit.

And there’s plenty of room to grow. To learn more, click here.

Photos from a Night at PLACE Academy

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