River's Edge teacher praised by students, educational organizations

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 21, 2014 

Brian Sites Teacher Honor

Brian Sites, left, works with senior Audrey Turnipseed, 18, on college scholarship applications at River's Edge High School in Richland on Friday morning. Sites was recently honored by the National Education Association with the Horace Mann Award for Excellence in Teaching, earning him a $10,000 prize.

TY BEAVER — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

The principal at River's Edge High School was wrapping up laudatory comments about Brian Sites when the math and science teacher made his way to the front of the room.

Once given the floor, Sites wasted no time in switching the attention to upcoming financial aid deadlines for students planning to continue their education after high school.

"If you've thought about beauty school, trucker school, (Columbia Basin College), you need to get this done," Sites said.

Much of Sites' teaching career has been spent at River's Edge High, Richland's alternative high school. It's where he's won a slew of teaching honors, most recently the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence from the National Education Association.

And it's where Sites refined the dual roles of teacher and mentor, students and staff say.

"He's just a teacher who actually believes in me," said senior Jordan Wesle, 17. "It was just kind of surprising, because most teachers are just like, 'OK just get through my class.' "

Sites started his teaching career 11 years ago at what was Hanford Middle School, but he was on a short-term contract for a year. He leaped at a more permanent opening at River's Edge High, which sits nestled on Gillespie Street in central Richland near Lewis & Clark Elementary School.

Sites helped students gain credits they were behind on, which mostly involved administering computer-based quizzes. The job could be tedious. There was also a negative stigma attached to alternative schools, which were typically seen as for students who couldn't cut it at a regular school.

"Initially, I was just going to come here and get out," he said.

Sites is now a social studies and math teacher for the independent learning program at River's Edge. Rather than standing up at the front of a classroom and lecturing, he works one-on-one with as many as 150 students per semester on everything from pre-algebra and geometry to government and history.

Having a deeper educational role wasn't the only thing that changed for Sites. He's become close to his students, something that's hard to do in a traditional high school. And while most of those students are capable of doing well in school, challenges -- ranging from unstable homes to health issues to social anxiety -- brought them to River's Edge.

"In here, a lot of it is teaching kids to be resilient," he said.

The needs of Sites' students drove him to find innovative ways to help them.

A few years ago, he and other students began inviting parents and students to the school Fridays to help fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to qualify for financial aid for college.

He's worked with community organizations to help at-risk youth. Most recently, he helped River's Edge secure a grant to make it easier for students to access computers to help with their schoolwork.

Those efforts have brought accolades. In 2008, the National Dropout Prevention Network gave Sites a Crystal Star Award of Excellence for his work in reducing dropouts. He was 2013 regional teacher of the year, losing out on the state honor to Zillah High School teacher Jeff Charbonneau, who eventually was named national teacher of the year.

The Horace Mann Award earned Sites a $10,000 prize, but was also good for his students. They received digital arts training, allowing them to produce a video about Sites that was shown at his recent award ceremony.

Principal Dan Chubb said Sites is always looking for ways to help his students and is in a position to point them in the right direction.

"It's not, 'How're you doing?' it's 'What are your goals?' " Chubb said.

Sites is great about connecting with students and getting to know them, said Barbie Nix, a paraeducator working with him in the independent learning program. But his focus goes beyond their present coursework.

"He encourages the students to look beyond high school," she said.

On Friday, Sites worked on scholarship applications with senior Audrey Turnipseed, 18. She said he's been encouraging her to seek financial aid, especially since she was recently accepted to college.

Sites has even loaned a student a dollar or two at times to help with bus fare, but students said he expects a lot out of them.

"Don't mistake his kindness for weakness," Jordan said. "It comes to a point where he says get it together."

As much as Sites loves the job, the emotional investment he has in his students can be a double-edged sword when they don't succeed right away, he said. But he's happy where he is and with how he's helping push personalized learning as an effective educational approach.

And the awards?

"I couldn't do this alone," he said, gesturing to Nix and the other educators in the program's classroom. "We keep it fun in here."

w Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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