Na'Lesya Hinton (center), stands with her mother, Candy Dowell, and Lugo-McGinness program administrator Stephanie Carter.

When Lugo-McGinness Academy opened its doors last fall, teachers and administrations weren’t only looking forward to a new facility for educating some of Charlottesville’s at-risk students.

In moving to a new building complete with a gym, an outdoor space and a library collection, the staff aimed to change the way students and community members thought about alternative education.

“The old building looked like a warehouse and sent the subliminal message to students they were being warehoused,” said Cindy Nelson, the academy’s English instructor. “Lugo-McGinness is a positive place. Being sent here is not a punishment. It is an opportunity to change the course.”

Students are referred to the school for a variety of reasons, such as those who have a documented history of behavioral issues or have been detained through the court system.

Some students, however, have chosen to refer themselves to the academy. Because of its small size — last year, Lugo-McGinness held only 31 students, with class sizes rarely exceeding more than six — staff can offer a level of one-on-one attention that isn’t available in a traditional high school.

Last year, rising 12th grader Na’Lesya Hinton found she was at risk of not graduating from Charlottesville High School. After a conversation with Assistant Principal Tamara Mines, she decided to come to Lugo-McGinness.

Now, not only is Hinton on track to graduate, but she is planning to finish school a semester early and take courses from Piedmont Virginia Community College in the spring.

“When I first came to Lugo, I was nervous but I felt really welcomed,” Hinton said. “People are here to help make you a better person and help you graduate.”

Key to student success, staff says, are relationships built on trust with students.

“We allow the kids to have a voice, which is what everybody wants,” said Ahmad Hawkins, a behavioral intervention specialist who began working at Lugo-McGinness last year. “We show them that they can trust adults and that we are there for them.”

Staff members said the reputation that the alternative school houses “bad” kids is particularly harmful and untrue.

“Kids that are labeled ‘bad,’ I label them misunderstood,” Hawkins said. “Once they find their identity, that’s when you see the good side.”

Nelson concurred.

“When you look at grades, it is hard to see who the kid is,” Nelson is. “Our students are smart and passionate with solid goals for their future, and it’s up to us to help them reach them.”

In addition to gaining a new space, the school’s administrative team last year received training in positive behavioral intervention and supports from the Virginia Department of Education. Afterward, they crafted a new student handbook focusing on student choices rather than punitive consequences for misbehavior, and amped up the resources dedicated to therapeutic behavioral supports.

The team developed a point system in which students progress through levels according to their behavior, with incentives attached at each stage. The idea behind the system is a constant focus on positive behavioral outcomes rather than negatives ones.

Lugo-McGinness also employs a behavioral intervention specialist, a school counselor, a case manager from the youth services nonprofit Elk Hill and a licensed clinical social worker, all of whom students can see throughout the school day.

“We try to address the issue behind misbehavior so students can access their academics,” said Stephanie Carter, program administrator of alternative education.

The dropout rate for the past academic year was 6 percent at Lugo-McGinness, compared to 26 percent the previous year. One student transferred back to Charlottesville High. Although six additional students also are eligible to transfer back, they have chosen to stay the academy.

Staff members said this decision is indicative of the value students have found within an intimate academic environment.

“Many of our students probably haven’t ever had a positive experience with school,” Carter said. “Because we are so small here, they are seen, and they are supported.”

Coupled with attention on school climate, staff says that they hope in the coming academic year to make greater strides on instructional design and academic achievement.

“Lugo-McGinness is a positive contribution to the community, and I hope to see it seen and celebrated that way,” Nelson said.