Alternative high school likely to graduate most students ever
February 27, 2010
Craig — Social worker Joanne Snow rattled five dice in her hand and let them fall on the table.
Each time they landed, she called out observations that sounded like gibberish to the 10 Moffat County Alternative School students who were gathered around watching Snow.
"One ice hole, three polar bears," Snow called out. "Four ice holes and five polar bears."
After each roll, the students stared at her blankly.
That's because the only rule of this particular dice game is that no one is allowed to explain the rules.
"I'm getting mad," student Bryanne Runnion said, as she guessed wrong once again. "I'm going to figure it out. I'm getting annoyed."
Snow pointed out that Bryanne's reaction was more important to the game than the mysterious rules.
"As learners, this game makes us think about how we react," Snow said. "How you feel now is how you feel in a classroom when you're a child and learning. You feel dumb, you feel inadequate and you want to quit."
Twice a week, Snow visits the Alternative School, which meets in the learning center at the Boys & Girls Club of Craig and hosts a group session focused on social and emotional development.
The alternative school offers a more flexible and personalized education for Moffat County students who have completed at least one semester at MCHS.
Last year, the school graduated nine students. Currently, about 20 of the 30 total students are on track to graduate in May, a record for the school.
Alternative School teacher Karen Chaney said her students come to her for a variety of reasons.
"Some people just get a better fit," Chaney said. "They get more attention, and some just like to work at their own pace."
A morning and afternoon session, each consisting of about 15 students, lasts for four hours.
Runnion, 17, is a junior and likes the flexibility of four hours of independent class work each day because it accommodates her family's ranching lifestyle and her desire to go into agriculture management.
Runnion is working on raising two market steers and a market heifer for this summer's fair, and said the Alternative School allows to her rush home to her animals if needed.
"It's more relaxed here," she said. "It's quiet, and you get to do things at your own pace. And pretty much everyone gets along here."
Chaney said some of her students have had children at a young age and find that attending school four hours a day and working at their own pace suits their needs better.
Others simply wanted to get away from the social structure and distractions that are prevalent in the hallways of larger public schools.
During normal class time, the students work on independent studies through Brigham Young University. They take classes online and sit through tests like any other student would.
When they complete enough credits, they can walk down the aisle in the Moffat County High School gymnasium in May to receive their diploma along with hundreds of other high school students.
Chaney said many of her students would not likely have had that opportunity if left in a normal high school setting.
"There are kids graduating who would not graduate at the high school," Chaney said. "We provide a safe, small environment. And the relationships with the teachers are the biggest piece. Sometimes kids come in a little immature, and they grow and develop in so many ways here."
The dice game that Snow played with the students during her Thursday session was designed to be an exercise in anger management and dealing with frustrations, something that Snow and Chaney believe is an important part of adolescent emotional development.
For Runnion, Thursday's lesson reflected the way she felt when she worked on subjects she normally struggled with, such as math.
"I'm really annoyed with it," she said. "I'm a junior, and I'm in Algebra 1. It's just hard for me. But I really like biology and stuff, earth science and culinary arts."
After playing the dice game for 40 minutes, only about half the class had figured out the secret to counting polar bears and ice holes.
Snow stopped the game and gave the remaining students hints, finally giving in to their frustrations and demands for answers.
But the lesson wasn't ultimately about counting dots on a set of dice.
It was about the kind of learning the students will face in the Alternative School and in life beyond school lessons.
"Sometimes, we pick things up really quickly," Snow said at the end of the lesson. "Other times, we struggle and struggle and struggle. But don't give up. There will always be someone there to help you."