Good results in the classroom and life are the goal of closing alternative high school and blending its students into Tahoma High
Chris Feist stood in a portable at Tahoma High School as he briefed a small group of students on the plan for first period.
After he finished, he told them to “Go forth and be fabulous!”
A student replied, “I’m always fabulous.”
“One for being fabulous,” Feist said and held up his hand for a high five.
Then the students, a group of less than 10, went to a bank of computers in the portable and began working on projects online.
Feist is the coordinator of Tahoma High’s Student Support Center, which kids spend one period a day in to work on credit retrieval using an online program provided by Apex Learning (www.apexlearning.com). The program offers courses for students who need to make up classes or are attending alternative schools, among other services.
Feist has been working with the Student Support Center for five years, and the model he has helped develop is going to be expanded next year when the Tahoma School District closes its alternative high school, Maple Valley High, and moves those students to Tahoma.
Terry Duty, principal at Tahoma High, said the district hired a consultant two years ago to audit its alternative education programs “to find out what needs were being met and what needs weren’t being met.”
Looking at new state and federal standards, the model that Maple Valley High followed since it opened in 1987 was no longer helping students in the way it had been intended. The Student Support Center has “been much more effective at helping kids meet standard,” Duty said
In the fall, about 60 students — Duty said the number fluctuates — will be integrated into Tahoma. Some will be put into the Student Support Center program, while others will be in the New Horizons program which will have them at Tahoma in the mornings and attending Running Start or vocational classes in the afternoons.
The goal, Duty explained, is to have a small learning community based on four criteria: Core academic learning, stretch learning, student engagement and personal skills development.
With core learning, students meet graduation requirements, while stretch learning means teens will be encouraged to try classes that are outside of their comfort zone.
“Every single bit of research that you look at says students that aren’t connected and engaged in their community are at risk,” Duty said. “A big piece of what we want to do is get kids engaged” by encouraging students to participate in extracurricular activities of some sort.
“You have to have a variety of things, because not every kid is going to be a football player,” Duty said. “Then as they get older, maybe that engagement is in the workplace, or an apprenticeship.”
Duty said Feist is an excellent example of an adult who is able to connect and engage students in a meaningful way.
“The connection is they’ve got this safe place, this small school environment that they feel good about, but they’re also part of the larger campus,” Duty said.
When Feist took over the Student Support Center five years ago, students were using a basic pencil-and-paper system of distance learning offered by Brigham Young University.
“When I came in, it was with the understanding that we were going to change and revamp what we were doing,” Feist said. “We got rid of that paper packet. It wasn’t what we really wanted for alternative education here at the high school.”
A new concept – educational growth and development – has been applied this year, which Feist said has added several components to credit retrieval, including Apex Learning.
“It’s much better coursework,” he said. “It’s more challenging. It’s more interactive. And we’re combining that with a personal touch. Once we develop that connection, that relationship, it’s easier to implement that developmental education aspect” with students.
Feist sits down with each student one-on-one two or three times a month. He talks with them about progress in Apex and looks over their other courses to see how they’re doing. If they need extra help, he works with those teachers as well as parents, and makes sure he gets kids pointed in the right direction.
He also discusses time management with the students, so they know how to balance their lives successfully.
“It’s taken me three to four years to get it organized into a structured course,” Feist said.
But with the help of outside observers, trips to other alternative education programs like West Auburn High and participation in conferences, he was able to evaluate what works.
“We’re in this process of making this larger in the high school, and that’s what we’re going to use to replace Maple Valley High School,” Feist said.
The plan is to bring in extra teachers, including two from Maple Valley High, and counselors to provide support for students. The district also plans to expand its alternative programs at the middle school and junior high levels so that students who are struggling and need this approach are caught sooner. Then, as they continue to move through the system, they’ll make smoother transitions from one level to the next, Feist said.
“That’s where you lose kids, typically, in the transition,” he said. “If we can work to make that transition smoother, our students will have greater success. We’re really looking at moving from reaction to prevention.”
Duty said the alternative high school students seem enthusiastic already about the changes. During a recent visit with the students, he said, “we talked about high expectations, high level of support. It was really positive and I was pleasantly surprised because I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
Duty said that 90 percent of the students at Maple Valley High have never stepped foot on Tahoma High’s campus, so, they’ll be taking a field trip to the school as well as other sites where they’ll take classes, such as Renton Technical College and the Puget Sound Skills Center in Renton.
Students will be encouraged to try vocational and certification programs and will have opportunities to access those programs which may better suit them than the traditional high school and university plan. Besides, many employers today want young people to have skills beyond what they can get in a traditional setting, Duty said.
This spring, each student will register for new fall classes with a counselor.
Duty said the goal is to help teens in the alternative education track get excited about life, set goals and create a vision.
“How do you close the gap between a dream and reality? That’s our job. Anybody can dream but how do you make that a reality,” Duty said.
Staff writer Kris Hill can be reached at (425) 432-1209 (extension 5054) and firstname.lastname@example.org
MAPLE VALLEY HIGH: AT A GLANCE
• As many as 30 students per year earn their diploma through the alternative high school program that Tahoma School District started in 1987 to help students who are at risk of not graduating. In the program’s first five years, 100 students graduated.
• The school is housed in three portable buildings on the grounds of the historic Maple Valley Grade School on Southeast 216th Way.
• From the school’s Web site: “ … positive self-esteem in students provides the foundation for becoming productive citizens who take pride in themselves, their community and the work around them. Many students come to Maple Valley High School as discouraged learners who have given up on completing their education. The staff works to reverse that process by creating a climate of mutual respect, tolerance and individual responsibility. The staff accepts students for who they are as they come into a new school setting. Past behaviors and experiences with school are not important. Students are invited to let go of attitudes and behaviors that may have kept them from being successful. (The school’s) philosophy is to accept the student where they are today and move ahead.”