NORMAL — A student can now earn a high school diploma, GED or learn vocational skills at YouthBuild McLean County without being a high school drop-out.

That change was approved by the McLean County Unit 5 school board this week when it amended its charter school agreement with YouthBuild. Another change allows YouthBuild to become a year-round school.

Until recently, students wanting to join a charter school in Illinois had to be a high school dropout, thus at least 17. With the change, now some 16-year-olds can get into the program and other students can continue their education without a break. The Unit 5 agreement reflects that change.

YouthBuild caters to the needs of some students “and help them before they drop out,” said Laura Fox, human resources, IT and finance manager for the agency.

Students having trouble in traditional school “can be re-directed before we lose them,” said Unit 5 Superintendent Gary Niehaus, who has wanted to see the age lowered since YouthBuild became a charter school in 2008.  “Unit 5 did not like the prospect to ask a student to drop out to go to YouthBuild,” he said.

YouthBuild McLean County will have about 50 charter school students this fall — 10 to 35 in its private school and GED students coming and going. Fox estimated there will be 60 to 80 students in the three programs this year that include building homes and teaching construction skills.

“There are different types of services for different types of kids,” said Glen Hoffmann, director of the DeWitt-McLean-Livingston Regional Alternative School in Bloomington. YouthBuild meets the needs of some of those students, he said.

Bloomington District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly doesn’t expect the change in policy to have a significant effect on District 87’s student population. “The local alternative programs have demonstrated successful outcomes with a number of students they have served. That being said, I always prefer that our students stay with us as I believe we have the best resources available to address their specific needs,” he said.

Some YouthBuild McLean County students return to public schools, technical schools or colleges; others use experience they’ve gained building houses get related jobs, Fox said.

YouthBuild also is well on its way to becoming a year-round school, having offered work this summer. “It means less time away from books, and more time work and build,” Fox said.

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