Different paths

Hayden and other districts discuss alternative school programs

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Except for seven credits, Hayden student Jessica Brannan, 17, has all but moved past high school life: She's planning to start massage therapy school in January.

Bored with the classroom, she decided Hayden High School's online program, or Cyberschool, was the best way to finish the credits she needed to graduate.

"I wanted to be done with school so I can move on to the next stage of my life," she said.

Hayden started the Cyber-school about five years ago to help students who didn't meld into the traditional school setting or were at risk of dropping out.

With an enrollment of 10 to 14 students each year, the Cyberschool is filling a need, but not necessarily in Hayden: Brannan is among just a few Hayden students in the program. Most come from the Moffat County and Steamboat Springs school districts.

Although Hayden school officials are pleased to be helping at-risk students, uncertain funding and program costs -- including a full-time instructor and course fees -- are prompting them to give the program a second look, Superintendent Mike Luppes said.

"Right now we're at a break-even program. ... Do we want to be risking (a loss) when they aren't our students?" he said.

Hayden is not the only school district facing an uphill battle in providing alternative education paths. The small size of other school districts such as Steamboat Springs and South Routt limits the variety of options those alternative schools are able to provide students, teachers and officials say.

Most are concerned about students the programs are not reaching.

"We've still got a lot of kids in all these communities that could be in school but aren't," Cyberschool instructor Ken Neis said.

Following the lead of other rural districts, officials with Hayden, Steamboat and South Routt schools recently agreed to explore the possibility of consolidating or restructuring their alternative programs.

Jane Toothaker, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services, is facilitating the effort and seeking grants to fund the process.

The overall goal "is to provide more options for kids and take the strengths of each program to create a more solid program," Toothaker said.

Officials hope to have a plan by next fall.

Visions for a new program

Hayden's Cyberschool demonstrates why students may benefit from more comprehensive options.

Qualified students can complete high school graduation requirements and receive a diploma through the program.

This can be a good fit for self-motivated students who like to move at a faster pace and also may be uncomfortable in large group settings, said Neis, who monitors students to make sure they stay on track.

Full-time students must spend at least 20 hours a week on computer coursework. "Twenty hours a week doing anything on a computer is quite a lot, and it's always a struggle for kids," Neis said.

Neis and district officials also worry that students in Cyberschool are isolated and missing out on important social interaction, though Neis tries to encourage group study sessions.

However, he has seen potential for camaraderie among alternative school students in the Yampa Valley.

In the few instances alternative schools have been able to get together for social activities, Neis was surprised at how many of the students knew one another.

"It's uncanny. ... Kids are connected in communities in ways that aren't so obvious," he said.

An ideal alternative structure would offer students online classes in combination with other individual and group learning opportunities, Neis said.

That's the idea behind the Routt County Alternative School in Oak Creek, which is independent of Soroco High School and has its own set of graduation requirements.

The alternative school works mostly with at-risk students who have had problems with attendance, behavior or motivation and/or have different learning styles, teacher Donna Weinman said.

Students can pursue high school diplomas, and high school dropouts also can get General Education Development credentials through the program.

Eight students are enrolled in the school. They work in small groups and alone on academic, music, art and physical education projects and also may take online classes.

The program includes Ag--gressive Replacement Train-ing to encourage good social skills, as well as career planning help and internship opportunities. Students also are required to volunteer in the community.

Sophomore Chris Berry, 15, started the program when he was in eighth grade. He likes that it allows him to pursue interests in music and other areas while completing his coursework.

"Whatever your interests are, you go for it," he said.

Still, Weinman sees potential in collaborating with other districts and teachers to provide students more variety.

"The diversity of curriculum that can be offered when you have one teacher is limited," she said.

Other teachers say they would welcome the support and expertise of other alternative school teachers in Routt County.

"We're all doing one-person shows," Neis said. "You get a little disconnected."

By working together, districts may incorporate outdoor education and other new alternative programs and also offer more flexible course schedules to students who work, said Marlene Horace, instructor at the Steam--boat Springs Alternative School.

"If the three of us get together ... I cannot imagine we would not be serving every facet of the community," she said.

The Steamboat Springs Alt-ernative School primarily serves students who have been suspended or expelled from school. Horace also has helped students receive their GEDs through the program, which also aims to re-integrate students into regular classroom settings.

Steamboat's SEAL program -- Students Engaged in Active Learning -- provides a different learning approach within Steamboat Springs High School.

That program provides students with a more hands-on and close-knit learning environment in core academic areas. Students also attend regular classes in the high school.

Although that model is working, Superintendent Donna How--ell sees a chance to further expand alternative options to students.

"I think when we pool talents and resources, we have the potential to increase service to a larger number of students," she said.

A model

More and more rural districts are collaborating to create alternative programs because unlike urban school districts, small districts do not have the economy of scale to support individual alternative schools, said Tom Healde, principal of the Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs.

The alternative school, built in 1988, serves four school districts in three counties and includes funding and support from human service agencies and philanthropic organizations.

The school has three components -- an alternative school, a program for teenage parents and the Wellspring Treatment School for students dealing with anxiety, anger and other emotional issues.

Students may participate in multiple programs.

"The idea is that we can all co-exist and operate together," said Healde, who will help Routt County school districts pursue an alternative program approach.

The graduation rate at Yampah Mountain High School is about 90 percent.

"These are kids who almost all of them would have dropped out," Healde said.

When looking at alternative schools, it's important to understand various reasons why some students don't succeed in traditional classrooms, he said.

Alternative schools typically help students who have accelerated or slow learning abilities. Both types of students may resort to deviant behavior because of boredom or frustration, Healde said.

"It's interesting, oftentimes when people think in terms of alternative schools, they think of students who are expelled or suspended," he said. "The question needs to be asked what prompted suspension or expulsion in the first place."

Addressing such issues up front helps the students as well as the larger communities, he said, noting that high school dropouts can cost communities thousands of dollars in services during their lives.

"It gets expensive when kids fail in the system," he said.

Healde, who has helped school districts through similar processes for 10 years, said there are a variety of ways to set up regional alternative programs.

Local officials note that transportation, funding and territory issues may present challenges, but those are hurdles that can be overcome, he said.

Ultimately, local alternative school teachers say they envision a "school of choice" that offers students flexible learning options and a sense of identity with their peers and school.

"The ideal is that they would feel good about the school that they go to," Neis said.

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