At 14, traumatized by a close friend’s suicide, Sunny Merritt was smoking pot before school and drinking beer afterward. On the many days she didn’t go, the beer flowed earlier and the parties lasted longer.
“At the rate I was using drugs and alcohol, nothing mattered,” said Merritt. “Reality fades.”
Merritt, who is now 16, has been sober for a year after undergoing treatment. She is looking into a career as cook. She loves school, has the fresh-scrubbed glow of health and a Pepsodent smile.
She attributes her turnaround to an odd little school tucked into a North Side strip mall that has wind chimes for a bell, random student drug tests and sky-high expectations.
Mead Educational Alternative Division - know by the acronym M.E.A.D. - has many students like Merritt, kids whose life stories seem like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. Alcohol and drug abuse, sexual abuse and abortion lurk in the large shadows of many lives.
Merritt, like many students, didn’t know what to think at first. Visually, the school is chaos, a one huge room where coats, guitars, ferns and posters jumble on top of one another. “Peace, Love, Rock & Roll” is spray-painted in the school’s music studio.
The basic program meets just three hours a day, four days a week. Teachers use only their first names and give out home phone numbers. Field trips for fishing and bowling are common.
Merritt says the school’s accepting, nurturing environment and demanding teachers probably saved her life.
“I used to dread getting up (for school). I’d get high or skip,” Merritt said. Now, “I look forward to being here. It’s amazing that it’s so happy and positive.”
Such testimonials are routine. Students who say they were ostricized in regular high schools feel accepted. Students with alcoholic parents call the school “a sanctuary.” Tough guys in dog collars become chefs in sweaters.
Kids who seemed to be headed for their parents’ worst dead-end nightmare now talk about going to college.
“I think it’s one of the most gratifying things I have been part of,” said Steve Hogue, a 34-year educator who is principal of both M.E.A.D. and Mead High School.
Walla Walla School District’s Bill Bieloh agrees. He has spent a year looking at models for a new Walla Walla alternative school, and calls M.E.A.D. “a different vision.”
“Those (teachers) are more missionaries than teachers,” said Bieloh, who visited M.E.A.D. last month. “Those kids are really on task and going, in all walks of life.”
The five-year-old school was started with the intention of making it unique, even among alternative schools.
“For a whole series of reasons, those students have disconnected from the mainstream problem,” said Hogue, who lobbied for the alternative school.
“We wanted to change that environment and putting them in an environment where the teacher is willing to deal with the trash in that kid’s head and not just the math lesson in front of them.”
Small class sizes help. The student-teacher ratio is 1-to-16, six students fewer than Mead High School. The ratio drops to 1-to-10 when the number of students on independent-study contracts is subtracted.
An entrance interview is required, and students are expected to be completely honest. How often do you use drugs? How is your home life? What interests you? Do you really want to learn? Students with a history of drug abuse must agree to random drug testing. Detection levels are half the standard for school bus drivers. “We’ll know if you had beer on the weekend,” said teacher Barb Peterson.
Students are told the school’s ground rules: Any school work that receives less than 80 percent must be redone; each student is responsible for getting the credit they need for graduation; and, most importantly, don’t betray the trust of the school or other students by flipping kids insults.
“When we accept kids here, we ask them if they are the type of people to accept and not make judgments,” said teacher Carole Allen.
If they aren’t, or have a problem with one of the rules, there are a dozen other kids waiting to get in. “There is a long waiting list,” said Hogue.
Once a student enrolls, he or she is placed in a core group and matched with a teacher who best fits the student’s personality and interests. Allen, for example, gets the eclectic writer types - one student wore a crazy Dr. Seuss hat last week, another is considering becoming a stunt woman for karate films.
The teachers are also de facto counselors, as much responsible for academic instruction as to keeping their students emotionally stable.
“Terri knows me as well as any friend or family member, rather than just the kid in seat number 25,” Cory Sonner, 19, said of teacher Terri Moran.
“Sometimes kids go home and we have to put them back together in the morning,” said Peterson.
Merritt’s mother, Peggy Kelly, said she marvels at her daughter’s turnaround since she began attending the alternative school. Like many parents, she worries about Merritt not being in a mainstream school.
“I’m pretty traditional and I see a lot of non-traditional kids there,” said Kelly. “That’s a struggle for me, but I want her to be happy and she is there.”
Instruction is based on the theory that each student should be taught the way he or she best learns. For musically inclined students, history is taught through the progression of instruments.
Because the kids tend to get distracted when immobile, field trips are emphasized. Last year, students learned about the history, geology and culture of the Columbia Basin on a skateboarding trip from Missoula to Seattle. A group of students went fishing last week to see their biology lessons in action.
The trips are paid for through fund-raisers organized by students. Senior Sam Rasmussen’s band and two others are playing a gig at the school in mid-March and donating the $4 ticket charge to the school.
Because many of the students are artistic, the school is alive with the smell of pottery and the sound of blues guitar riffs. “I (used to) sit in class and listen to a teacher and it means nothing,” said Abe Woods, a lanky 15-year-old whose shirt showed Jack Nicholson’s demonic grin from “The Shining.” “Instead of learning it out of a book, we go out and do it.”
But students are also expected to work on their own. If they don’t, they will be moved out of a core group and onto a more individual contract. If they don’t keep up, they are out.
“If you are serious about an education, you have to bite the bullet and do it,” said Merritt. “Anyone not serious about education can’t make it because they don’t have the selfmotivation.”
Because of that, discipline is not a problem. There has never been a theft at the school, although wallets and purses lay on tables. The dropout and suspension rate at M.E.A.D. is about half that at Mead High School.
The school can be taxing on the teachers, who have an average of 15 years of experience. Teachers have gotten 2 a.m. phone calls from confused students, and have allowed students to sleep at their homes when they have nowhere else to go.
But, for teachers, there is great satisfaction in knowing they have helped a troubled student turn his life around.
“This is why I went into teaching,” said Peterson.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 color)