Turning lives around

Alternative school making a difference

Jessica Seales misses singing in the choir. She misses her friends. She misses pep rallies.

But they're sacrifices she's willing to make to get an education.

Conflicts with teachers and the education process and steady reports of failing grades put Seales in a position where she was ready to join the 31 percent of Colorado high school students who drop out of high school.

Her salvation came when the alternative school opened its doors.

"I'd rather be here," the 16-year-old said. "Here you've got people you can talk to, get help from. I didn't feel comfortable asking for help at the high school and when I got it, I didn't use it right."

Since enrolling at Moffat County's Alternative School, Seales' grades have soared. She reports a "B" average now instead of "Fs galore."

She hopes to be able to finish her high school career at the alternative school.

This is Moffat County's third attempt at providing an alternative school -- and by all accounts, the new program is destined to be a success.

It already has attracted at least 10 students who officially had dropped out of high school.

Two of its attributes, Moffat County High School Counselor Carroll Moore said, is that it's off-site, ensuring that behavior changes aren't negatively influenced, and it combines counseling, life skills and character-building exercises with traditional core classes.

Students take two courses via the Internet and one using a workbook. The style allows students to progress at their own pace, but on-site teachers are there to help every step of the way.

"There's a lot more personal and social studies than we've ever had before in an alternative school program," Moore said. "We've actually built in time for that."

For the first two weeks, students didn't study, take tests or do assignments. They learned about themselves and each other in character building and life-skills studies.

Alternative school program coordinator, teacher and psychologist Sherry Meadows attributes much of the program's early success in the comfort level students built in those two weeks.

"It was really a group-building time for them," she said. "It was a time for them to build themselves, too."

Students also spend time in group therapy twice a week, where they work on communication, conflict resolution, anger management and setting boundaries. And Meadows always is available for one-on-one counseling or crisis intervention.

"I'm learning so much here. More than I every learned at the high school," Seales said. "I wish we could do group every day."

There are 24 students enrolled, with half attending from 8 a.m. to noon and the other half from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The program is capped at 30 enrollments and has a waiting list.

Some spots are held open to accommodate Craig Middle School students who have been suspended and need a structured way to continue their educations.

"It's definitely meeting a need in our community," Moore said.

Students must apply to participate in the program. A committee meets to evaluate the application, and then the student and his or her parents are interviewed.

Students enroll in the alternative school for a variety of reasons all hinging on one factor: the traditional 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day and school environment don't suit them.

"Everyone thinks if you go here, you're bad," Seales said. "That's not true."

A majority of the students need more one-on-one interaction, smaller classes and the ability to work at their own pace.

"It's our concept of meeting the needs of all the students, and one-size-fits-all is not the ideal for all students," Superintendent of Schools Pete Bergmann said. "We're trying to meet the needs of a diverse group of students who don't fit -- for whatever reason -- traditional education in a traditional high school."

Students are required to commit to attending, and they must have attempted classes at the high school and have not been successful for either social, academic or behavioral reasons.

Although it's early in the school year, Meadows thinks the program has been successful.

"It's a very positive atmosphere," she said. "We have a great group of kids."

Every student is required to meet behavioral expectations, and they progress from Level 1 to Level 3 based on how well they meet those expectations. Students earn privileges such as extended gym time or the ability to have food in the classroom. A student must keep 75 percent of their behavior points for two weeks before they can move up a level.

Meadows estimates that 60 percent of her students are at Level 2 and 20 percent at Level 3. Most of those at Level 1 are new to the program and haven't had enough time to progress.

"The students really come here and work hard," Meadows said. "It's really amazing the trust we have in this group."

Seales is a Level 3 student. She can go to high school athletic events and dances and hang out with her friends.

That's enough for her.

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