In 2017, the Lakeville school district will relocate its Area Learning Center, or ALC, to spaces in each high school to save money and provide ALC students access to the classes, support services and even lunch options that Lakeville North and South students have.

“The biggest reason for us [to do this] is we’re trying to personalize learning for all kids,” said Renae Ouillette, the district’s director of student services. “Kids were having to give up a lot to go there.”

School officials say it will reduce the subsidy — $650,000 last year — the district’s general fund must provide the ALC to operate. But the decision concerns some parents and students, who believe a separate site is essential to ALC students’ comfort and success. And administrators concede that the transition may be complicated, requiring teacher and students to rethink prejudices about ALC students.

“Some people chose to come [to the ALC] because they didn’t want to attend the high school. We have many different reasons,” said Shamar Williams, who attended the Lakeville ALC, called Pathways, through 2014. “Some people want the prom, the school dances, and some people don’t want that stuff.”

Many metro-area districts have ALCs or alternative programs to help students who, for mental health, social or academic reasons, aren’t successful in traditional high schools. Students can catch up on credits or learn in a different environment.

Traditionally, ALCs have been located separately because of space issues and to get certain students out of the mainstream school environment, said Michelle Christenson, director of the Beacon program at Bloomington Kennedy High School.

Shifting ALC students back to regular high schools is a national trend, said Ouillette.

“It’s happening a lot all over the country in terms of people really rethinking, do we house our kids that are struggling in one environment?” Ouillette said. “Maybe we thought 20 years ago that was a good idea, and now we’re kind of looking at it saying … maybe we can do things differently.”

Lakeville will still have a small, off-site program to accommodate 10 to 15 percent of the ALC population, currently 94 students. Seventh- through 12th-grade kids who truly can’t handle or don’t want a conventional setting can enroll, Ouillette said.

Other districts have tried keeping ALC kids close to home. Bloomington has housed ALC programs at its high schools for six or seven years, Christenson said.

Hopkins and Wayzata also have high school ALC programs.

Reasons for separation

Though quality “school within a school” programs exist, ALCs are often off-site for a reason: They’re a chance to start fresh and make behavior changes away from a problematic environment, said Steve Allen, executive coordinator of the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs.

Other students go to ALCs because of anxiety issues, said Deb Arnold, a parent on Lakeville’s ALC steering committee. Students like her son benefit from a small environment and close staff and peer relationships, she said.

Moving to the high school “is not in the best interests of many of these kids,” she said.

Lakeville school officials aren’t just rethinking the ALC’s location, which will likely be in a flexible two-room space at each school. A steering committee is also looking at the center’s curriculum, the profile of students sent there and the ALC referral process.

Each ALC will begin incorporating a project-based learning philosophy in 2017. Students will complete interdisciplinary projects to show they understand material, rather than typical assignments like work sheets.

Another goal has been to lessen the stigma of being an ALC student, which is unfair and unfounded, Ouillette said.

“There’s a lot of feelings out there about ‘those kids,’ ” Ouillette said. “And they’re the same kids, they’re our kids. … I think there’s some unnecessary fear out there.”

Ouillette said transitioning ALC kids into high school will take time.

Several Lakeville South students said they would welcome ALC kids at their school.

“I think that’s a great idea,” said Alec Olson, a Lakeville South senior. “Then they can still be around peers and maintain friendships if they want to.”