Yampa Valley School graduate Rae Steele hugs teacher P.J. Zenewicz while receiving her diploma Friday afternoon at the Yampa River Botanic Park. The school honored three graduates during a short ceremony at the park.

Photo by John F. Russell

Yampa Valley School graduate Rae Steele hugs teacher P.J. Zenewicz while receiving her diploma Friday afternoon at the Yampa River Botanic Park. The school honored three graduates during a short ceremony at the park.

3 graduate from Yampa Valley School

School's alternative approach garners positive results

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Rae Steele, left, gives Josie Pacana a high-five after the Yampa Valley School graduation Friday afternoon.

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Yampa Valley School seniors Josie Pacana, front, and Rae Steele listen to a speaker at the school graduation Friday afternoon.

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Sue Carter takes a photo of graduate Josie Pacana, left, and her mother Shannon Winegarner at Yampa Valley School graduation Friday afternoon.

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Yampa Valley School seniors Josie Pacana, right, and Rae Steele listen to a speaker at the school's graduation at the Yampa River Botanic Park.

— Josie Pacana never worried about not graduating from high school.

At some point while attending Steamboat Springs High School, she stopped enjoying it. So for her senior year, she transferred to Yampa Valley School, which offers students a second chance in an alternative educational environment.

When she addressed a small group Friday at Yampa River Botanic Park, as one of three graduates in the Class of 2009 that also included Cole Breland and Rae Steele, she said the ceremony wasn't how she imagined her graduation.

"I like it better this way," she said, "because last year was the most enjoyable."

Pacana said she found a sense of community at Yampa Valley School, a sense of belonging and, more importantly, she enjoyed learning again.

Before the ceremony, teacher P.J. Zenewicz called Yampa Valley School a school of choice - a place where it's up to the students to decide whether they want to be successful.

The Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services operates the three-year-old school on behalf of Routt County's three public school districts. Three spots each are available for Hayden and South Routt students, and nine are available for Steamboat students. All interested students must apply and be accepted to the school. The districts fund the program by paying to BOCES the per-pupil costs they receive from the state for those slots.

Zenewicz called Friday's ceremony a celebration of the graduates' choices.

"I'm really proud of these kids, for how they made decisions, for how they owned up to past mistakes," he said. "They mean a lot to me."

Each student has a different plan following graduation.

Breland, who is the first member of his family to graduate from high school, was working in Walden with his father Friday and couldn't find a ride back for the ceremony. Zenewicz said Breland is thinking about attending art school.

Steele said she's going to take a year off to continue her recovery after being hospitalized last January with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder that turns the body's immune system against its nervous system. She wants to travel, after which she is considering attending massage therapy school.

Pacana earned two $1,000 scholarships and will attend Fort Lewis College in the fall. She hasn't decided on a major but has enrolled in a program called Planet Earth, which gives freshman the opportunity to see whether they enjoy studying archaeology by learning the basics in four classes. She said the program includes an archaeological dig at the Grand Canyon.

"I'm excited about each of their futures," teacher Dan Juba said. "I know they're all going to be successful."

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