Cayla Werley, 18, was a little worried about her speech at Barker High School’s graduation ceremony. She was thinking she was going to be very nervous talking in front of the audience. Principal Kerri Ames told her not to think about it as a speech, but a “moment at the mic.”
“Just think about how you’d feel two weeks from now if you didn’t,” Ames told her.
Werley is one of 43 students who graduated from Barker this year, making up the largest class in school history. During graduation, each student was allowed to say a few words as they accepted their diploma, an achievement many of the students didn’t think they would reach.
The school started with just one teacher in the mid-1990s. It didn’t have a principal until Ames came aboard in 2008. The first year she was there, about 20 students graduated.
Ames and Jean Marczynski, the district’s executive director for secondary learning and teaching, said there are many reasons the school is growing.
First, they said they are working to change the perception of “alternative education” to “nontraditional.”
Second, Ames said the school has been growing since the Central Valley School District has been working to earlier identify students who could benefit from a nontraditional education. In the past, a struggling student might not move to a nontraditional setting until their last year or two of school.
“After three years of failing, that’s really hard to dig things out,” Ames said. If they find the students earlier, it’s not as hard to catch up. They have even been speaking in the district’s middle schools to tell them about the programs available at Barker.
Marczynski said students who attend Barker aren’t necessarily troublemakers or not smart enough to succeed. Often, life gets in the way of students’ educations. Some of them have health issues that keep them out of school. Some of them may need to care for a sick family member. Some of them must work full time to keep their families afloat. Some are homeless.
Some of them just may feel more comfortable in a smaller environment.
There are two programs at Barker. The full-day program is Monday through Thursday. For the students, this means they have Fridays to work off campus and the teachers have that day to collaborate and plan their lessons.
There is also the I-TRACC program. Students come to the computer lab once a week to get lessons and talk with their teachers. During the rest of the week, they work on their own time.
Once the student gets in the door, the trick is to keep the momentum of their progress going. Each student is assigned an adult advocate – a teacher they meet with every day to discuss their attendance, problem solving, behavior problems and to discuss if what they are trying is working or what they need to change.
Ames said there is also help from outside resources. The district’s homeless liaison will come to the school, as will representatives from Spokane Mental Health. Pregnant students, homeless students and students who have been affected by drug and alcohol abuse get help.
“Someone’s always holding them together,” Ames said.
Involving students in those outside resources is another key – Liberty Lake Kiwanis has helped to form a Key Club. One Church helps students gather food for the school’s annual Thanksgiving feast. Students help collect clothing for the district’s clothing bank, the Council Closet.
“I feel like we do a lot of big school work in a small school,” Ames said.
Students must meet all state and district requirements to graduate, however, nontraditional students don’t have to complete as many electives. Ames said the reasoning behind that is Barker is too small for a visual or performing arts program and many of the students have barriers to learning as it is – their electives have come from the school of life.
But one elective credit the school offers centers itself around career and college readiness. Ames asks each student where they expect to be in three years. She doesn’t want to think of the school getting the students to graduation and leaving them there. She said they get out into the community to complete internships, apply for financial aid for higher education and take some career and technical education courses.
In Werley’s case, she is the youngest of three children and admits she slacked off as a student at Central Valley High School. She completed a competency-based credit program last year to catch up with her credits at CV, returned to her home school, but then failed a class this fall. Barker was the school she needed.
One of her teachers put her into three online classes that she can do on her own time. It was up to her how she worked and when she completed assignments.
“I like doing online a lot better,” she said.
Neither her older sister nor her brother graduated from high school. Werley said her parents pushed her to finally get all of her needed credits.
“I didn’t want to disappoint them,” she said.
Today, she is looking forward to attending Spokane Community College and later, Washington State University.