Trish Carpenter may not know that Idaho has one of the nation’s highest dropout rates, which has created a boom in alternative schools.
Carpenter does know what success feels like, though. She recently earned an A and three B’s. Before enrolling in Post Falls’ New Vision alternative school, she says, “I never had a grade in the first three letters of the alphabet.”
She also won an attendance award.
“Last year, when I was a freshman at the high school, I was skipping Fridays. I didn’t do Mondays. I hated it there,” says Carpenter. “My mom gave up on me.”
Alternative schools are public education’s way of not giving up on kids. The schools are part MASH unit, part family, part academic laboratory.
They’re also shedding their stigma as places for losers.
Most students who experience alternative schools only go back to traditional classrooms “dragging and kicking,” says George Heaton, director of Silver Valley Alternative School.
Waiting lists are standard.
“We have 275 slots, and 120 more kids would like to come here,” says Julie Green, principal at Project CDA, Coeur d’Alene’s alternative school for seventh through 12th grades.
The Project, founded in 1979, is among the oldest of Idaho’s 35 public alternative schools in 112 districts. St. Maries Alternative School is among the newest. It opened last September.
The Boundary County School District is the only one in the Panhandle without an alternative school.
The biggest difference between alternative schools and what their students call “real school” is smaller classes.
Kids get more attention.
Since 1989, the state has been willing to pay for one teacher per 12 students at alternative schools. The usual ratio is one teacher to 18.5 students.
“They help you more. They explain things to you,” says Sunshine Manriquez, who came to Project CDA after being suspended from Lakes Middle School.
“There, you could sit in the back and fail,” says the eighth-grader. “Here, if you don’t finish your work, you have to stay until you do.”
Ironically, the discipline that many students rebelled against is part of what makes alternative schools work. Students call teachers by their first names, and the atmosphere is laid-back. But the academic standards aren’t.
“We expect them to be successful. Once they start here, there’s a whole new slate,” says Green. “We tell them, ‘You come to school, you come to school every day and you come to school on time.”’
Tardiness is counted as an absence at Project CDA. Chalk up three absences per quarter, and you’re expelled. Fighting or drug use also will get you kicked out.
“Most reapply the next semester,” says Green.
Unlike alternative schools in some other states, Idaho’s are only for students at risk of dropping out. The state has 11 criteria for enrollment, including law-breaking, excessive absences, pregnancy, emotional or physical trauma, a grade point average of less than 1.5.
“If they’ve dropped out, they automatically qualify,” says Colleen Kelsey, head teacher at New Vision school.
There is no more and no less drug and alcohol use among alternative school students, administrators say.
Substance abuse does show up more quickly.
“Five minutes after school starts, I know who’s here, who’s not and generally what they did the night before,” says Kelsey. “There aren’t many secrets here.”
Her school has 65 students, compared to 1,037 at Post Falls High.
New Vision teachers don’t accept work that’s not at least of C quality. They don’t give homework, because most students have jobs, Kelsey says, and there’s no use setting them up for failure by giving them assignments they won’t have time to do.
Class periods are longer. Students study fewer subjects at a time.
“That reduces by half the number of classes they attend in a day. It reduces anxiety, and the chance for failure,” Kelsey says.
Most alternative schools use the same approach. It’s working for Josh Melvin, a student at the new St. Maries Community Education Center. This year he’s gone from being an F student to a B student.
At the high school, Melvin says, “I went from freshman to sophomore to sophomore. I was going to do sophomore again, but they decided to give me another chance.”
North Idaho’s alternative schools may be on the forefront of academic theory, but they’re on the back burner when it comes to facilities.
The St. Maries center is a remodeled building at the Benewah County fairgrounds. The Silver Valley Alternative School is nine rooms upstairs in the Wallace Post Office. New Vision shares an old building with the Post Falls kindergarten center, and there’s talk of moving it for a fourth time.
Project CDA operates in an old hospital. Buckets catch water from the leaking roof, there are curtains between classrooms, the library consists of a few sparsely filled shelves.
If their surroundings depress the teachers, they hide it well.
Kelsey says she’s proud to help kids that someone else has given up on. She’s enjoyed “at risk” kids ever since she was back teaching in junior high.
“A lot of teachers place them in the rear of the room. I always liked them right by my desk, because they had the best stories.”
Mary Frey, who teaches at Project CDA, wouldn’t go back to a regular classroom, because, “Here, I can fit the round peg in the round hole.”
Frey’s eighth-grade teaching partner, John Hassell, also works an evening shift teaching older kids who have day jobs.
Says Hassell: “I like the high school kid who practically grabs you by the lapels and says, ‘Teach me something! I’m tired of cooking french fries!”’
The latest survey of Project CDA graduates showed that 25 percent of them went on to college or trade school.
Alternative schools don’t work for everyone, though. Statewide last year, 28 percent of their students left before graduating.
“Some days you see progress, some days you don’t,” says John Klingaman, head teacher at Lakeland School District’s Mountain View alternative school.
Klingaman sees enough progress that he talks buoyantly about Mountain View.
He hopes more people in the Rathdrum area will drop by to see what goes on there.
“I think you’d be surprised. You don’t have to come in with a bulletproof jacket,” Klingaman says.
“For me, this is what education is all about.”
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