Alexsis Schell was always a good student. Until she wasn’t.
She routinely got good grades when she’d go to school, but then she stopped going. She didn’t get along with teachers, got into fights with other students, skipped classes to hang out with friends. In time she ran away from home, got into legal trouble and spent time in juvenile detention.
But when she returned to her family and found she had nothing really to look forward to when she got up in the morning, it finally dawned on Schell “that if I went to school, I knew I’d go further than where I was headed at that time.”
Knowing that she didn’t do well in a traditional high school setting, she enrolled in the Contract Based Education alternative high school, a cooperative program of the Spokane Valley school districts which offers a specialized curriculum and more flexible program of study. She got straight A’s this past year, but she was still far behind in her academic credits due to her truant past, with the prospect of earning a high school diploma at anything close to a traditional age far off on the horizon.
Then she learned about the NET, a program offered by Northeast Washington Educational School District 101 since 2000, and she bugged her school counselor to help her apply for it. This summer the 16-year-old Schell is enrolled in the NET (so named for its safety net design), and she is on track for returning to CBE this fall at her age-appropriate academic grade level and on target for graduation.
“The NET fits the needs of really capable students like Alexsis who for one reason or another are not earning their high school credits,” said Mona Griffin, coordinator of the program which serves seven school districts and 15 high schools at two locations in Spokane. These students can be credit deficient due to incarceration, medical issues, drug or alcohol involvement or like one young man Griffin remembers who was moved about from relative to relative, attending 20 different schools in 10 years.”
The NET runs three groups of students throughout the year – fall, spring and summer – and it can be competitive to get in. There were 130 applicants for 110 slots this summer. The students take an intensive Web-based math program and typically advance one to three grade levels in math, Griffin said. The students do a lot of writing – poetry, prose and book reports – and also do two practical math investigations, which this summer involve learning the process of purchasing a car, including the real costs of financing, and the concept of how interest is applied in both rent-to-own and payday loan businesses. In addition to other elements of study, they work in small groups and must do a presentation at the end of the 60-day curriculum in which they reflect on what they have learned, academically and about themselves.
“That last piece helps them transition to their home high schools, where they are required to spend at least one more year, and we always invite high school representatives for that occasion,” Griffin said. Students are also counseled that they need to make important changes when returning to their home schools. “For example, they might need to make the commitment to not hang around with the same kids they got in trouble with before,” she noted.
The NET is funded by the state of Washington with federal pass-through dollars and it can accept as many students as it has teachers for. Typically, there are 250 students who participate each year. More than half come from poverty. The NET is not a credit-retrieval program. It’s a credit-waiver program. For students who successfully complete the requirements, a letter is sent to their high school principal, who then decides whether waivers will be granted for the missed coursework.
Griffin said that about 75 percent complete the program and of that number 60 to 70 percent go on to earn a high school diploma. “Considering that they are a high risk population, that’s pretty good,” she said.
Schell is working hard to be one of those successful students. In addition to doing well this summer, she says she intends to continue doing well in school next year, when she expects also to participate in a Running Start program to get a jump on college courses. This summer she is also taking a driver’s education course and works at a fast food restaurant.
“This is really working for me,” she said. “It’s intense and I can’t slack off, but I know it’s going to help me get somewhere. There are a lot better things in this world than being a slacker.”
Griffin said Schell is like many of the students who do well at the NET “who are appreciative of another chance, who feel so good to be succeeding at something. If you treat students as individuals and meet them where they are, they will be successful. Programs like this show it’s doable.”