BOISE – When Madison Sargent enrolled in Meridian Technical Charter High School as a freshman, she wasn’t a tech geek. She didn’t even own a computer. She preferred spending time outdoors when she was away from school, rather than hovered over a video game or tearing down a computer.
“Now it’s the opposite,” said Sargent, 18, a senior with straight A’s and her eye on a career in computer programming and cybersecurity.
Just a few steps away on the Meridian, Idaho, campus is Meridian Medical Arts Charter High School. Richard Nguyen,16, enrolled as a freshman two years ago to pursue a career in medicine. He works diligently to keep up his grades. “I can’t personally see a B in the grade book,” he said.
Both schools were early entries in the Idaho charter school movement, which now has 52 schools statewide. Meridian Technical Charter, which gives students a background in computers, programing, repairing computers and building websites, opened in the late 1990s. Meridian Medical Charter School, providing training in health fields and producing students who’ve become doctors, nurses and other health professionals, opened in 2003.
The schools are similar and share a common ancestry. Students typically get in through a lottery system. Each school enrolls about 200 students, overwhelmingly from West Ada School District. Each operates on a budget of about $2 million annually, and each has rates of students going on to college about double the statewide rate of 46 percent.
Being charter schools gives them the option to narrow their focus. They focus on technology and medicine, and tailor subjects such as history, English and foreign language around those fields. Students have few classes that are not determined for them in the field each school is built upon.
Both schools were authorized by the West Ada School District and have their own boards of directors.
Going on to college
From the moment students walk into the schools, going to college is established as an expectation. At Meridian Medical, students take college-level courses in the sciences, health and often even basics such as English. Students can graduate with up to 40 college credits – more than a year’s worth of credits accepted at most Idaho colleges, said Scott Hill, principal. His school has a 90 percent go-on rate for its senior classes, which number about 35 students.
But it isn’t easy. Nursing students, for example, face a formidable array of math classes. “You need to be a pretty darned good math student in order to get from the ninth-grade year of math to college statistics as a senior,” Hill said.
Next door at the technical school, students undergo a 280-hour internship that provides them with real-world experience in technology – and, often, a catalyst that sends many students to college, said Principal Randy Yadon. The go-on rate at Technical Charter School is about 85 percent.
“We’re trying to be very clear,” he said. “This isn’t the end of your education.”
Internships are the centerpiece of technical school students’ senior year.
Virtual IT, a tech support company in Eagle, is one of several companies providing internships. Virtual IT began taking on paid interns during the school year and over the summer three years ago, said Tavis Reche, president and CEO. Students come with a basic computer knowledge and Reche assesses how well they work with others, whether they find the work interesting and whether they have good customer service skills.
“We’ve had mostly good interns that do a good job and are sharp,” Reche said. “We have one who comes (back) and works for us during in the summer, even though he’s off in college.”
Small school atmosphere
For many of the students drawn to the technical and medical charters, school size matters. Sargent, who came to the technical school with no computer experience, faced going to Rocky Mountain High School – student population 2,100 – in ninth grade.
“It’s a gigantic school,” she said. “I wanted this small environment. I knew I’d get to know everybody here. And with a senior class of only 29 students, I definitely know everybody.”
The technical school is lopsided toward boys: 80 percent to 20 percent. The medical charter school enrollment is nearly a mirror opposite: 75 percent girls.
Sargent doesn’t mind. “The guys just treat me like one of the guys.’ she said. “The girls in my grade are very capable. There is definitely no drama.”
A demanding curriculum
Students headed into Meridian Technical Charter School with visions of spending the day learning and playing video games soon discover differently, Yadon said. “Really that is not what we do at all,” Yadon said.
Students can chose from several tracks, such as web design, programming and IT support. And they will graduate in four years with an entry-level tech certification in some field, Yadon said. Students need at least 70 percent to pass an individual course.
At the medical school, Hill, the principal, is direct about the education challenge.
“Most of the students who come and stay are hardworking students, because they have to work hard to stay here,” he said.
The minimum score to pass a class is 74 percent. Flunk a class and you take it again over the summer before coming back. And you don’t move on to the next subject until you pass the previous one, Hill said.
“We lose kids for the workload,” he said. “It’s too much for some, even though they are getting A’s and B’s.” About 15 percent of students leave each year over the four years of high school, he said. A class starting with 64 students can end up with 35 or 40 by graduation.
Racquel Rhymer, 17, a senior at the medical charter school who plans to study nursing at Idaho State University next year, says it moves at a fast pace. She does two to three hours of homework a night. “There is just a lot to do,” said Rhymer. “You have eight classes.”
What do they learn?
The curriculum is a combination of courses around the technology or medical studies. Other required basics such as English and history are taught through a technical or medical lens. In English, for example, health science students study Hamlet and through that discuss mental illness. “Romeo and Juliet” prompts a discussion of natural medicines. (Juliet, you’ll remember, gets a potion that makes her appear to be dead.)
Not every book is also a medical lesson. “I don’t like to have them constantly marinating in the health science,” said Sharon Hurd, the school’s English and art teacher.
Student also take classes in emergency medical training and learn to become a certified nurses assistant, where they develop skills in attending to patient needs, such as bathing and taking blood pressure.
“It’s all about caring,” said senior Tristen Disney, 17, as he worked with a dummy in a hospital bed. “It’s not just a blob sitting on a bed.”
Sargent, the student who got a passion for computing, will walk out of Meridian Technical Charter High School with a clear goal: going to Boise State University to further her computer and cyber education.
“I feel pretty confident,” she said. “I want this type of job.”
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