About 150 Steamboat Springs High School students, mostly seniors, staged a walkout and left campus just after 11 a.m. Thursday in protest of a graduation requirement.
"My entire Spanish class got up and walked out," said Melissa Walsh, a 16-year-old junior.
It seemed for a time like it was the last day of school as pickups sped, honking, out of the parking lot and cheering students waved to each other.
But the intent of Thursday's walkout was not to celebrate, but to protest the Senior Odyssey program, a yearlong class that all seniors must complete to graduate. The class, in its second mandatory year, includes a series of essays about plans after high school, college preparedness instruction and a lengthy research paper that leads into a career-oriented senior project.
Several students standing on a sidewalk near the school said the program is too rigid, does not fit the needs of some students and is unnecessary for others and is repetitive and should not be mandatory.
"(Odyssey) is too focused on college and on kids who already have a set plan," said Bo Randolph, a 17-year-old senior.
"You get graded, in a way, on what your plan is; if you don't talk about college, you get graded down."
Yoshi Yonekawa, also a 17-year-old senior, agreed.
"It only caters to one group of people," said Yonekawa, who left school in the middle of his Senior Experience class. Senior Experience is a significant part of the Odyssey program.
Chris Hansen, a senior, said the walkout did not imply dissatisfaction with high school faculty.
"It's not against the teachers at all," said Hansen, 17. "(Odyssey) is just not a beneficial program."
Some students said the program takes up time seniors could be spending with teachers in high-level academic classes.
"Our high school offers so many great AP classes, but since Senior Experience, kids don't have time to take them," Melissa Walsh said.
The program could even reduce chances of college acceptance, students said.
"Some colleges haven't heard of it and think Senior Experience is a slacker class that makes for a nonrigorous senior year," said Chase Butcher, a 17-year-old senior.
"That's contradicting what Senior Experience was originally meant to be," said sophomore Taylor Miller-Freutel, 16. Her father, Tom Miller-Freutel, is the president of the Steamboat Springs School Board. Taylor Miller-Freutel said her father was aware of her participation in the walkout.
Principal Mike Knezevich said a process was under way to examine graduation requirements but that the Odyssey program was "a done deal" for this year's seniors.
"It will be a requirement this year," he said. "It's not negotiable."
Knezevich stood calmly by the school's front door as students filed past on the way out, even saying "Good morning" to one who waved as she walked by.
"If you are out of class, you need to leave campus," he told students.
"I stood there for a reason, so kids could approach me," Knezevich said later in the day. "It was kind of disappointing that not one kid said one thing to me walking out."
There was a discussion with students Wednesday, Knezevich said. Knezevich, assistant principal Kevin Taulman, school faculty and School Board member John DeVincentis discussed the Odyssey program with about 50 students.
Knezevich said that although "80 or 90 percent" of those students "had no idea this was being looked at on a bigger level," it was a productive talk and the students were respectful.
"I was very impressed, as I so often am with our kids," he said.
A committee composed of the four district principals, other administrators, parents, teachers, community members, a Steamboat Springs High School graduate and student Becky Rupnow, a sophomore, is examining graduation requirements. Three meetings remain for the committee, including a community forum for public comment Nov. 29. It will make a recommendation -- for changes or not -- to the School Board in January.
"We have not been charged that we must make changes," said Ann Sims, the district's director of curriculum and instruction. "We have been charged to review graduation requirements and recommend changes if necessary."
That review has included a wealth of data, Knezevich and Sims said, regarding curriculum history, student scheduling, class selection and college requirements.
"Senior Odyssey is just one small component of that process," Sims said.
Some of the data shed light on why students may be pressed for time, with or without the Odyssey program, Sims said.
"The vast majority of the kids, upward of 80 to 85 percent, are taking much more than the basic requirements for graduation," she said, citing high enrollments in extra math and foreign language classes. "That's some of the pretty astounding data that we've been able to look at to help us formulate opinions."
Not only students endorse a need for change.
"There are parents out there who support that kind of statement," Leslie Lovejoy said about Thursday's walkout. Her daughter, Sierra, is a senior at the high school and is taking three classes at Colorado Mountain College.
"She could have graduated at semester and be taking much more college hours, but because of the Senior Experience, she will be at the high school all year," Lovejoy said. She added that a Colorado law giving partial tuition refunds to college students won't apply to Sierra until she graduates, which is costing the family money.
"There should be some seniors who would be given the opportunity to opt out," Leslie Lovejoy said.
Such was the refrain among students outside the school Thursday.
"If this wasn't a required class, this protest wouldn't have happened," Chase Butcher said.
There will be repercussions for the students who walked out, school officials said. Students who leave without signing out in the main office can be sent to a 90-minute detention after school, Knezevich said. Also, students will miss any schoolwork or tests that occurred in their classes.
"If they have an unexcused absence in a class, they can't make that work up," Knezevich said.
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