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Inspiring Change While Empowering Students

Joyce Bell’s Journey
Sritha Rathikindi
During fifth hour, Alternative Education Program Director Joyce Bell helps a student with their writing.

In a cozy corner of school, alternative education teacher Joyce Bell is ready to greet any student with her warm smile. Her 33-year career as an educator is ending, and Bell has experienced several department changes over the years.

A photo collage created using Joyce Bell’s school photos over her career. (Photos courtesy of Joyce Bell. )

“I started as a special education teacher. I worked with specific groups of students who needed to learn differently and helped them. I loved helping these kids learn in different ways, so I got my degree in counseling,” Bell said.

After spending four years as the Director of Learning Support at Clayton, Bell utilized her degree in counseling for eight years. However, when the collaborative alternative school that included students from Clayton closed, Bell found her calling.

“When that school closed, we all had to go back to our buildings and host our alternative learning programs,” Bell said.

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She took advantage of the opportunity and started the Greyhound Alternative Program, or GAP program. It became the first alternative program exclusively for Clayton High School students.

“[Alternative education] was all of my careers in one. Now, I get to work with students individually or in small groups, and I also have that social-emotional piece that I wouldn’t have had when I first started. It’s a great culmination of my career,” Bell said.

She adores the ability the GAP program gives her to work with students on a deeper level.

“You get to work with the students on what they need, how to help and provide resources, and then get to work with families and meeting those needs,” Bell said.

Having a max of 22 students, Bell notices that it’s easier for her to build relationships with students.

I’m with them every day for three hours of the day. I build those relationships by spending that time and getting to know them, asking them questions about what they like and don’t like. For example, we get to talk about their weekend, but we talk about it. Whereas in a traditional classroom, you’re not able to do that.

— Joyce Bell

“I’m with them every day for three hours of the day. I build those relationships by spending that time and getting to know them, asking them questions about what they like and don’t like,” Bell said. “For example, we get to talk about their weekend, but we talk about it. Whereas in a traditional classroom, you’re not able to do that.”

The students in the GAP program create a friendly and welcoming environment, but for students struggling, Bell creates an environment to host private conversations.

“If there are students who need to talk about something private, we’ll go to my office, which is away from the classroom, so it provides a space for them to talk,” Bell said.

Besides private chats with students who seek support, all the learning occurs in the classroom, where the students consistently socialize. Bell has a unique approach to fostering community among the students.

“We’ll do silly things like Wordle and Connection so that we’re working on a common goal. Because everybody’s working on their classes through a computer, their classwork is very individualized, so I’m helping them individually,” Bell said. “That’s why I try to incorporate common experiences that we can do together to form our community.”

Given that her students take classes ranging from Algebra to Anthropology, Bell has to know a little about everything.

“That’s a benefit of starting a special education teacher because you have to learn about everything. I say I know a little bit about everything [and] a lot about nothing,” Bell said.

Counselors Joyce Bell, Deb McBride, Carolyn Blair, Alice Morrison, and Tobie Smith celebrate Deb Dornfeld for Administrative Assistance Day. Dornfeld stepped away from her desk so counseling took a picture next to the flowers to send to her. (Photo courtesy of Joyce Bell)

Along with her prior knowledge, Bell commits to watching the same lessons the student will watch ahead of time to help the student properly. Other teachers in the GAP program specialize in specific subjects.

“Mr. La Madrid and Ms. Richards help with math; English is Ms. Richards’s primary focus. We take different subjects, so it helps the students as much as possible,” Bell said.

Bell believes the benefits of alternative learning are widespread. They range from benefiting students who simply have not found success in a traditional classroom setting to helping students who have fallen behind in school so they can return to a traditional setting.

“I have seen students here who haven’t passed a class in a semester, and they come in and pass the first class. It gives them that momentum to keep trying and they feel success, sometimes for the first time,” Bell said. “I’ve had a few students last year who were in the program as juniors and they’re back in their traditional classrooms as seniors because they got caught up and found success.”

That’s one of Bell’s favorite parts of being an alternative educator.

“I think the exciting thing for me is to watch students find success that [they] haven’t had in a while. To say to students, ‘You’re so smart, and I’m proud of you,’ is amazing,” Bell said.

Bell teaches the GAP students skills such as reading stamina, executive functions, time management and consistent attendance. There is a direct action and consequence relationship regarding the student’s attendance.

“The students have a timeline for when they complete a course; it goes day by day. If you’re not here, you’re a day behind now, and your timeline’s off. It shows them what missing the day looks like. It’s like we’re on track, but now you’re behind because you missed a day,” Bell said.

Throughout her career, Bell has witnessed alternative education evolve dramatically.

“When I started my career thirty-three years ago, [alternative education] was where the ‘bad kids’ went. It was a place for kids with discipline issues or lack of attendance,” Bell said.

However, because of the school district’s focus and work around mental health and wellness, Bell believes we as a society have learned that some children need to learn differently for various reasons. The GAP program allows the school to meet the needs of all students.

“That’s what I love about our alternative program. If you’ve had behavior or discipline issues, you might have to go to the GAP program,” Bell said. “But it’s also for students who need to learn differently or might have social anxiety and need to step away for a semester. Or it’s for medically fragile students. For those students, the GAP program provides a place that’s a segue to go back to traditional learning.”

Research from the University of Kansas School of Education suggests that alternative educational methods can improve outcomes for students who struggle with conventional classroom settings. Bell advocates for the broader adoption of such practices, aiming to enhance educational inclusivity and effectiveness.

Sometimes students can show you they’ve learned the material differently than the traditional multiple-choice test. Some teachers try to figure that out because they know all students learn differently. Everybody doesn’t have to show you they’ve learned in the same way.

— Joyce Bell

“Sometimes students can show you they’ve learned the material differently than the traditional multiple-choice test. Some teachers try to figure that out because they know all students learn differently. Everybody doesn’t have to show you they’ve learned in the same way,” Bell said.

Since the GAP students are somewhat isolated from the rest of the high school, Bell has worked to ensure they are still connected to the community. Whether informing and encouraging the students to attend school events such as homecoming or working with students and athletic officers to ensure they have all the necessary credits to participate in sports and clubs, Bell provides ample opportunities for students to get involved.

“If the student wants to be connected [to the community], we’re going to work and find ways for them to stay connected,” Bell said.

Joyce Bell poses for a team picture with the cheerleading squad at Hazelwood East High School. Bell coached for 14 years. (Photo courtesy of Joyce Bell)

Contrasting traditional one-size-fits-all educational models, The GAP program tailors its curriculum to each learner’s unique requirements. This student-centered approach has been documented to improve individual academic performance.

“The [GAP program] is about giving the student a voice. It allows them some choice on what they’re learning and allows us to meet them where they are. It also gives [the students] opportunities to find success very quickly,” Bell said.

Over the past two years, Bell has established a solid framework for the GAP program. Looking ahead, she envisions her successor broadening the program’s scope by enhancing the duration of sessions and fostering a stronger sense of community among participants.

She has built a solid base for the GAP program for two years, but Bell wants more. She hopes her predecessor will expand the program in length and breadth by adding extra or longer sessions. Bell would also like to see a stronger community built within the program.

“I’ve worked so hard with every individual student to make sure they’ve individually found success. With the nature of Alternative Education, when people are coming and going at different times, it’s harder to build community,” Bell said. “So we must have ways that [the students] can support each other and be a supportive community.”

Bell also encourages the students to connect with community resources that can help them with service hours, jobs, internships, and mental health.

“Alternative education helps the student figure out what they’re going to do when they get out of here. I think that’s the next step and vision, especially for Clayton High School, because we have great resources,” Bell said. “It’s about finding connections for the students so they’ll feel successful in the classroom as well as in a real-world setting.”

Above all moments, there’s one that encapsulates the success of Bell’s efforts.

“I’ve had a couple of students who’ve had everyone bet against them. They were able to get [school] done and walk across that stage against all odds, maybe because of the work we did but also because they found success and motivation [with this program]. My favorite thing is seeing that student at graduation,” Bell said.

Even in her retirement, Bell will continue to support education through advocacy work related to helping students and families through the 504 process. That process focuses on ways to get help for students who have special needs. She also plans to do advocacy work for students who need more resources to get advocates.

In Clayton, we are blessed because people can get that advocacy. Having worked in districts where they don’t have those resources, I’ve seen a lot of students not get the help they need because they don’t have people who know how to push [for it], but I’m going to push.

— Joyce Bell

Bell’s upcoming retirement has prompted reflections on her significant contributions to education, particularly from colleagues like Brianna Richards, who has closely collaborated with her in the Learning Center since November 2020. Richards, who developed a strong bond with Bell while working with the freshman class, is among many who have witnessed Bell’s dedication to student support and advocacy firsthand.

“I was back and forth with her a lot of times to correspond, and it sometimes boiled [over] to her office to get information on kids to make sure that [they] have what they needed,” Richards said.

As Bell became the director of the GAP, her collaboration with Richards grew because of the construction of the new Learning Center. Inspired by Bell’s dedication and passion during their prior years of teamwork, Richards anticipated the opportunity to further their joint efforts in enhancing the educational experience for freshmen.

“She cares about students; you can tell that everything she [does] is dedicated [to them],” Richards said.

Richards considers Bell one of her “work moms” because of the support and objective advice she offers.

“I’ll go to her for help and find out if I’m in the wrong in a situation. I’ll ask them for advice on that,” Richards said. “We got close knowing we share the same care for kids.”

Over the years, one thing stood out to Richards about Bell: her ability to perceive potential in others and use it to benefit the community.

“Recognizing other people’s potential and using [their] potential to help others is the best thing you can do, especially in a small community. I think that’s one of [her] greatest strengths: thinking of others anytime she’s doing anything,” Richards said.

Bell’s work did not just help teachers; it also made a big difference for students. In her second year of the GAP program, junior Peyton Warren says Bell improved the learning experience for her and her classmates.

“She has impacted my time in the program a lot because she is such a good person to have around if you are going through a hard time,” Warren said. “She has helped me out by letting me talk to her about anything. Most of the time it is about friend troubles, but she always lets me go on rants and clear my head.”

Warren feels security around Bell, knowing she can go to Bell with anything.

“I tell her about everything. I love talking to her, and she is just a nice person,” Warren said. “Since she used to be a counselor, she gives real and substantial advice. She won’t just take my side if I’m asking her about friend problems, which is helpful because you feel like she really cares.”

Bell can maintain a great balance, helping Warren express her frustrations and giving her a push when She needs to refocus.

“She gives good advice but also gets you to do your work. I probably wouldn’t get anything done if I didn’t have her to motivate me,” Warren said.

She shares a particular time when Bell’s advice, motivation, and dedication helped her overcome a roadblock in her learning.

“I was just struggling to figure out a math unit. And she would sit there and help you. She sat with me for an hour and a half, and if she didn’t know how to do [whatever we were doing], she would look it up or get another teacher to come help. Her dedication to making sure I understood the math really helped”.

Students and faculty members have openly acknowledged Bell’s positive influence on the school environment. Testimonials from these individuals highlight the supportive atmosphere she’s created, suggesting that her departure will leave a noticeable void.

“She’s always been so comforting and welcoming. She is one of the most supportive people I know, and I will miss seeing her every day,” said Warren. “We’ll all just kind of miss having that person to confide in. She’s a person in the school who you can always feel comfortable talking to. You’re supposed to have that one teacher whom you feel like you can confide in; she’s that teacher for me. I’m going to miss that deep connection and her vibrant personality.”

This story was originally published on The Globe on May 28, 2024.