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Banking on KC – Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us.

Kelly Scanlon:

With us on this episode is Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr, the principal of Plaza Academy. Welcome Joy Beth.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

Hi Kelly, thank you for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, thank you for being here with us today. Why was the Plaza Academy founded?

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

So, I actually think this is a really interesting history. Plaza Academy was founded out of a doctoral research project by Gary Seabaugh through Kansas University. He received a federal grant which provided the seed money for Plaza Academy to start. He was doing that as part of his doctoral research project. And so, that project has now been going on for almost 50 years.

Kelly Scanlon:

Wow. 50 years though, that's exciting.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us about the students that the Plaza Academy serves.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

We serve a wide variety of students in 7th through 12th grade. They're from all over the metropolitan area, Kansas and Missouri. We, certainly, have urban core students, as well as affluent suburban students. And, interestingly, we're generally equally divided between males and females. And we continue to be pleased that we're able to reach all social and economic, and cultural demographics of kiddos, so they're all represented in ours school.

Kelly Scanlon:

Why do students come to Plaza Academy? What is it that you serve, or that you offer that attracts those students?

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

For every student that's here, there's an individual reason. They tend to be in groups of reasons, such as we have extremely bright and gifted students that come to us who have advanced developmentally beyond their peers. And so, they require more of an adult kind of academic and social environment. As well as teenagers with learning disabilities, who require specially designed curriculum. And daily individualized attention that either their school isn't able to provide anymore, or their families, and that student don't feel like is being provided in the best way possible for them. Additionally, it's teenagers who are dissatisfied with their peer and family relations for all kinds of reasons, which then accompany problems at school. They look for an alternative. And, finally, in recent years, we're really seeing a rise in our LGBTQ students who find our environment safe and secure, so that they're able to express themselves fully versus a really large traditional public school.

Kelly Scanlon:

So, you really, really serve a diverse group of students. You have to be a lot of things to a lot of different people. So, with that in mind, how is your academic approach at Plaza Academy different from that in other schools?

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

You're right, Kelly, we do have to be many things to many people, and that's where certainly our staff is so important. And within that, I would say just that initially our small size is what helps us to provide that individualized attention, and different therapy models that we have available.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

I would start by saying that our academic structure is based on Missouri standards, great teaching practices. So, in that respect, we're similar to many top-tier public and private schools. I think there are several things that set us apart. One is, as I mentioned, our class size. 10 to 1 in terms of teachers to students. And our staff ratio is 4 to 1. So, this really allows us to prepare the students to face those challenges, support them through overcoming some of the obstacles, probably the reasons that they came to us. And we do that through our civic education and therapeutic model.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's talk about each of those separately. Let's start with civic education, what does that involve?

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

The civic education model is very unique to us, and does go back to that original mission statement and thought process from the beginning that we've been able to maintain.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

What we have found is teenagers are resistant, and can be rebellious, and have very paradoxical behavior, which can result in them perceiving that they're being controlled. That can be kind of a front to their natural disposition towards its autonomy. And so, for some teenagers, they really struggle with that adult control, a power struggle if you will. And so, our civic education model is where we employ our students to take control of their own lives.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

When they enroll in Plaza Academy, they're here because they want to be. They don't have to be here and they're welcome to leave anytime they like, certainly, in conversation with their family. So, it's like an open door policy, the doors you can come in and you can go out. And that seems to create a balance kind of right from the beginning.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

Schools, by nature, are very control-oriented, and I worked in public school for over 25 years, so I understand because of large groups of people, you have to have some control. But, for us, this is about self-management, learning to communicate effectively, and learning the social skills that are going to help you be an effective adult.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are some of the ways you go about that? Give us some examples of how you build that kind of, well, first of all, confidence and self-esteem in students in order for them to be able to form their own boundaries?

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

That confidence and self-esteem is definitely one of our goals. And I would just say that it, certainly, does take time.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

We have students starting in 7th grade and many of them stay with us through graduation. So, that is certainly a continuum of development, it doesn't happen overnight. But we have a number of policies that encourage our students to behave more in an adult-like manner, which are especially effective when implemented in this small environment with lots of support. For example, our students address their teachers by their first name to encourage rapport. So, versus Mrs. Smith, it's, "Hi, Sandy." Also, we don't ring class bells. Instead, "We tell them to be on time, look at the clock, watch your peers. You need to be punctual."

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

And then, to further enrich that school environment, we operate an open lunch, an open campus, if you will, in order to teach our students to leave and return to campus in a timely manner, as they will do when they go to college, or a work environment.

Kelly Scanlon:

So, what you're creating there is an environment that really mirrors the real world.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

Exactly.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

So we provide a safe environment, a learning environment in which we teach them to be academically and socially skilled, which is based on what you just said, the observation that people learn best in an environment similar to where their new skills will be applied. So, we kind of treat our school like a college-like atmosphere. Again, you can come, you can go. If you're late, there are consequences. If you don't come, there are consequences. But if you're on time and you come, you're rewarded with, most likely, good grades and, ultimately, graduation.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

For those reasons and others, our students become enthusiastic about their academic performance and progress towards maturity, because they're seeing themselves fulfill those roles of responsibility.

Kelly Scanlon:

Exactly.

Kelly Scanlon:

So, the other approach is the therapeutic approach. You mentioned that earlier. Tell us about that.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

Yes. This is also a very unique approach that is delivered hand in hand with the civic education model that we were just talking about because we deliver a comprehensive treatment model to our students and their families throughout the entire year. The treatment model's comprised of cognitive behavior therapy, contingency management training, adolescent strategies on impulse control, and self-management. So, we have two licensed therapists on staff, and we have four special education licensed teachers that provide accommodations, and interventions throughout the course of a student's academic time here.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

I think the really important piece is, what we call in education, wraparound services. So, it's really important because the family is involved. There's family counseling, the students get private therapy sessions at school, and then there's some adolescent group counseling that we do along with that.

Kelly Scanlon:

And with the students, and their parents, and even other family members, as you mentioned, so vested in the outcome of these students, what kind of positive impact have you seen over the years?

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

So, we have seen many positive outcomes that have been achieved over the years. Just to start when students enroll at Plaza Academy, generally, their attendance record is around 50%. When they enroll here, their attendance record jumps to 93%.

Kelly Scanlon:

That's amazing.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

They find themselves safe, they find adults that they can trust and they find their people if you will. So, they find people and they see people that they can relate to. And so, they want to come to school. Also, one of the tangible outcomes that we see within a year and, again, it's that continuum of growth over time, our enrolling students' GPAs typically increase by 100%. Many, many of our students are failing completely when they come to us because they've so checked out of their current environment that they have nothing to give academically if you will. But once they get here, they get comfortable, they come to school, as I was just talking about, those GPAs kind of take care of themselves, so to speak.

Kelly Scanlon:

That's just amazing, the increase in the GPAs. And I have to imagine that with that kind of academic improvement, your graduation rates must also be pretty high.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

We see great positive results with graduation. In fact, with almost 50 years of serving the Kansas City at-risk population with an average class size of 8 to 10, there are nearly 500 more are high school graduates out in the world. In fact, we're now serving children of graduates because they found such success at Plaza that they want that for their children.

Kelly Scanlon:

With 500 graduates out there in the world, I'm sure that many of them have met success, that they've been contributors to society, and have really made a difference.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

Oh, for sure. We see that all the time. And we have business owners here in town that are very successful, and actually are generous donors back to us, and help us continue our mission going forward. There are nonprofit leaders and executive directors in the city that are going on to give back as well.

Kelly Scanlon:

Obviously, you've had many success stories, but the people who come to you, often, have some challenges to begin with. And I would imagine that even with all of the programs that you have, and all the support systems that you and their families have put into place, that there can be challenges still. Can you talk to us about how students work through those challenges?

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

Being a teenager is a challenging time anyway. And so, if you have a mental health challenge, if you have a learning disability or a family member, heaven forbid, that's in prison, or that has a parent that has died, certainly, life happens and there's teenage pregnancy. And so, those are challenges that happen. And the kiddos that are with us when that happens, typically, are able to lean into those trusting relationships that they've built with us over the course of time. And so, we then are able to help them manage that in terms of, can we support you while you are, for example, on maternity leave, we put schoolwork online. We're able to really work with them individually to meet their needs so that we can continue towards the ultimate goal, which is graduation. And then, obviously, moving on to being a productive citizen in the community.

Kelly Scanlon:

I sit and I listen to all of this, and this novel approach, and the fact that it all came from a dissertation 50 years ago. And look at all of the positive impacts it's had. I'm curious about how you got involved personally with it. You said you had 20, some years of experience in the public school system, but what drew you to Plaza Academy specifically?

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

That's a story a little bit in itself. So, as I said, I've been in education for over 25 years, serving in a variety of roles, as you can imagine with students from birth through 12th grade. So, in large public schools in the area. And the executive director and I were casual acquaintances through our children's sports teams. And he was often telling me about PA and the work they did. And, of course, I was an educator, so we would just kind of talk back and forth about that.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

And, over time, I was looking for a new challenge that would allow me to make a direct impact on at-risk youth in a smaller environment. And so, it just became more evident, to me, that Plaza was a place to do that. And this is my fifth year here and my third year as principal.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, well, congratulations on that.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've obviously made a tremendous impact on so many people over the years, Plaza Academy has, you, your predecessors. And you never know the real numbers though, because you affect that one individual who, in turn, affects so many other people in their lives. And so, you really never know the pay it forward value. Do you ever stop and think about that?

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

That's an interesting thought, and it's so very true. When you are an educator or a social service person helping anybody, but particularly young people, often you don't know the full effect of what you've done because they grow up and go on with their life. But I believe the biggest impact that we have is on individual students and their families. As you were saying, this is a domino effect on the families and the community.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

So, the nature of our school is family-like. So, currently, we have 50 students enrolled. And even though that number will grow over the course of the year to between 60 and 70 maximum, the staff and students know each other very well, which means they're forming trusting relationships, and the students are receiving validation for who they are. And, as we've talked about earlier, being a teenager is very challenging, but Plaza Academy celebrates the individual student. We celebrate who they are as a person. And we know that one positive relationship can save someone. And just saving one person is priceless to the community. And creating reductive contributing citizens makes our Kansas City community that much stronger.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk to us about how our listeners can get involved with Plaza Academy. Are there opportunities to volunteer, or to interact in other ways?

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

We would love to get people more involved with Plaza Academy. And we do have some volunteers on a certain level. Usually, as speakers, who can share their individual story, any kind of story, but particularly one that is going to show some resilience, and the ability to fight through challenges and change. So, that is certainly an opportunity. We're always open to that.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

But also, we would love for people to join us at our annual fundraiser, Dollars for Scholars on November 13th. The fundraiser helps us provide scholarships to students that are not able to pay the full tuition. Ultimately, we're a social service organization. And we don't want to turn away students that want to attend, but they can't afford it. As it turns out, 95% of our students are on some type of scholarship. By supporting us, in that way, we are able to continue to do the work that we do on a daily basis by providing scholarships for students.

Kelly Scanlon:

Sounds like there's a lot of different ways that people can get involved. And for anyone who is interested, what's the best place to reach out? Is it to go to your website?

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

Yes. I would encourage people to go to our website PlazaAcademy.org to get additional information about the school, and the ways to get involved, and Donate is right there on our website.

Kelly Scanlon:

Joy Beth, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you so much for everything that you and your staff are doing in the community. We really appreciate it.

Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr:

Well, thank you, Kelly. I really appreciate your time, taking the time to highlight our school.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Joy Beth Scammahorn-Orr for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC.

Joe Close:

Most of us go about our days without thinking about, much less ever knowing the far-reaching impact of our words and actions. When Plaza Academy, founder, Gary Seabaugh completed his doctoral research project at UMKC, after serving as a decorated Marine in Vietnam, he likely didn't realize Plaza Academy would be the outgrowth of his Ph.D. work. Or that, nearly 50 years later, the alternative school would still exist at all, stronger than ever, creating productive, contributing citizens who make Kansas City a better community.

Joe Close:

Likewise, as Joy Beth points out, when you help young people, you often don't know the full impact of what you've done, but by creating an educational environment in which students and their families are engaged, and flourish Plaza Academy creates a domino effect in the community. "We know that one positive relationship can save someone," she said, "And just saving one person is priceless to the community."

Joe Close:

Don't underestimate your ability to impact the people around you. You don't have to be the founder of a school to change people's lives. Take the small opportunities you are given each day to be kind and generous. You may not immediately see the impact of those efforts, but their ripple effect will be felt by many. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

 

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