Same path, alternate routes

New school hopes to help teens who may otherwise fall through cracks

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In June 2005, one day before finishing his junior year, Drew Ganyer's time at Steamboat Springs High School ended. Not only had he been caught with a master key to the school, he also had been previously suspended for three weeks for hacking into a computer database to change his grades. Both incidents were indisputable violations of school rules.

"Between the combination of those two things, I was expelled," said Ganyer, now 18. "I thought it was the worst thing in the world."

Applications for Yampa Valley High School will be available Friday from high school administrators and guidance counselors in all three Routt County school districts and also at the BOCES office in the George P. Sauer Human Services Center, 325 Seventh St. in Steamboat. The deadline for applications is June 2.

After applying, students will be asked to participate in an interview with school officials, including the two Yampa Valley High School teachers, who will be hired later this month. Students who turn in applications on time will be contacted for interview scheduling by June 12.

For a high school student, expulsion can be the worst thing. But for Ganyer and other teens who may take alternate routes through their high school years, a traditional school is not always the right fit.

In September, the newly formed Yampa Valley High School will provide an alternative education for 12 Routt County students who, for one reason or another, need a different learning environment to succeed.

The school will combine three existing alternative high schools in Hayden, South Routt and Steamboat Springs. The Hayden and South Routt schools will close --artly because of low enrollment and shrinking finances --nd bring their resources to Steamboat. Yampa Valley High will be upstairs in the George P. Sauer Human Services Center on Seventh Street, chosen for its available space and central location in Routt County.

According to its mission statement, the school will be designed to help students "develop positive attitudes toward learning" and "achieve individual goals."

Ganyer is an example of how goals can be reached without walking across a stage at graduation. Less than four months after his expulsion, he completed requirements for his Gen--eral Equivalency Diploma, or GED, at Steamboat's Colorado Mountain College Alpine campus.

On April 29, Ganyer got even better news -- based partly on his excellent GED test scores and telephone interviews, he was accepted to the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.

Three into one

Of the three alternative high school programs in Routt County, South Routt Alternative School in Oak Creek has had the most consistent enrollment. Founded in 2002, the school has seven students. One student is waiting for the results of her GED tests, and three others are nearing graduation.

The school, however, is nearing the end of its funding -- a five-year grant that has provided between $35,000 and $45,000 annually expires this year.

In Hayden, a cyberschool program taught by Ken Neis allows students to take courses and earn credits online. But with fluctuating enrollment, the school also is experiencing financial difficulties. A similar situation exists with the Steamboat alternative program taught by Marlene Horace.

"The number of students changes every day," said Sue Gariepy, grant writer for the Steamboat Springs School District and a member of the committee that formed Yampa Valley High School.

"What we tried to do is take the best of all three programs and combine them into one school," Gariepy said.

The Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES, will manage day-to-day operations at Yampa Valley High School. BOCES Executive Director Jane Toothaker said that, like the Hayden program, Yampa Valley High will offer online options.

The committee is hiring two teachers -- one full-time and one part-time. Toothaker said there are 16 applicants, one of whom is Donna Weinman, the only teacher at South Routt Alternative School.

"I'm excited for the new school," Weinman said. "I think it's going to open up some opportunities."

Change is constant

Six of Yampa Valley High's 12 students will come from Steamboat. Three will come from Hayden, and three will come from South Routt. All three school districts will provide funding for the new school based on the per-pupil-funding the districts already receive from the state.

Although bus transportation will be available, driving time is the least of the worries for South Routt students, Weinman said.

"They're approaching this (new school) with trepidation, because they're comfortable with what they have now," she said Friday. "They're scared of change -- they're going to go to school in an entirely different community than where they live, and they're not sure if they like that or not. It's a matter of helping them get through change and teaching them that change is constant."

Sophomore Chris Berry, 15, is the youngest student at South Routt Alternative School and the one who has been there the longest. Eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs cereal before beginning a chemistry assignment Friday morning, Chris said that although he is not looking forward to the new school, he thinks he "has no choice" but to go. He hopes his application is accepted.

"One of the things I'm hoping for next year is that people who have been here don't get excluded," he said.

Weinman said Chris is thriving at the South Routt school, which operates on a flexible schedule and in an easygoing environment that Weinman said allows students to design their own curriculum and work at their own pace. A recent Discovery magazine article, for example, got Chris interested in the planet Neptune. After additional research, he wrote an 18-page paper about the planet and has now moved on to studying chemistry.

While Chris worked through a packet of chemistry worksheets Friday, his sister, Beth, filled out forms for an upcoming overnight trip the students are taking to a ropes course near Granby. A ropes course is a series of high-level physical and mental challenges designed to teach skills such as teamwork and trust.

Weinman said the trip, funded by a Legacy grant, is an example of "experiential learning" -- a common, outside-the-classroom component to alternative schools.

For Beth, 18, the trip represents why she attends the alternative school -- to challenge herself and improve her life.

"Most of the people around my age who I hang out with, 90 percent of them don't have a GED or a diploma," she said, adding that several of her friends are pregnant or already have babies. "I try to bring some friends down here (to the school) to show them they can do it, to try to help them out, but it doesn't work. Something you have to have at an alternative school is motivation."

A lack of motivation was evident Friday morning. By 10 a.m., two students had yet to arrive.

"That's the kind of thing I worry about with the new school in Steamboat," Weinman said, citing possible attendance problems because of the increased distance. "But these kids have to learn to take responsibility."

A look ahead

Tom Heald was the facilitator for the committee that formed Yampa Valley High. He is no stranger to alternative schools. Heald is the principal of Yampah Mountain High School, a Glenwood Springs facility that combines three schools into one and has 160 students.

Heald said that in addition to the alternative school of 85 students, Yampah Mountain has a Teen Parent School that allows students to bring newborn babies to school with them and the Wellspring Treatment School for students with "significant emotional disabilities."

Yampah Mountain High School serves four school districts, three counties and 12 municipalities, Heald said. When the school became accredited in 1991, it had about 10 students.

Heald said the school's growth has not changed its intent.

"The philosophy has not changed since the day we started," he said. "When students walk in the door, we need to address their individual needs and talents. No two kids are at any time having the same program. They might share classes, but when they graduate, they will have their own unique program that they present to their graduation team."

Like South Routt, Yampah Mountain uses experiential learning, but on a larger scale. Heald said students have taken trips to Nicaragua, Cuba, Eur--ope and Antarctica. Students participate in extracurricular activities such as sports and clubs at the high schools in their home school districts. Students at Yampa Valley High School will have the same option.

Heald said maintaining communication with school districts is crucial for alternative schools.

"When we look at these rural resort regions, the impact is regionwide," he said.

Safety nets

Steamboat Springs High School Principal Mike Knez--evich said several "safety nets" are available for struggling students. The school offers summer classes and specialized programs for students who need to catch up on credits. Soroco High School and Hayden High School also offer such programs.

But sometimes, students fall through the safety nets -- or aren't looking to be caught in the first place.

"I didn't need to change my grades -- I had A's and B's," Ganyer said last week while talking about his suspension for hacking into the school's computer database. "I just had a little too much time with nothing to do and a computer sitting right in front of me."

Ganyer, who hopes to study film and animation at Rochester, said he acquired a master key to get into the school's theater.

"Getting access to the theater was really difficult," he said. "(A friend and I) were in charge of the technical production for lots of different stuff. We did things like school plays, senior projects and band concerts."

Well-intentioned or not, he broke the rules. Knezevich couldn't comment about Gan--yer's situation because of state privacy laws, but he did comment about the school's expulsion policy.

"The biggest thing to keep in mind is that any student suspected of a violation is given due process," he said. "Then it's up to school administrators to weigh the evidence and the charge."

Alternative schools such as Yampa Valley High may have unique abilities to help prevent student infractions. Weinman said such schools allow teachers to build strong, individualized rapports with students. And starting small will be good for Yampa Valley High and its students, she said.

"It's not about being big. It's about meeting the needs of these kids," she said. "These are kids' lives we're dealing with. Let's start out successful."

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