WALSENBURG- The students sat around a large table in a darkened room. The teacher and volunteer aide were helping the eight students work on a writing assignment. The students come together to work on a common project once or twice a day, but most of the time they work individually, at their own pace. The students are part of the Opportunity and Enrichment School in the RE-1 district. These students have their own space in the lower level of Washington School where the freedom to learn without many distractions, according to the students themselves, is the main benefit of the O & E school.
The eighth, ninth and tenth graders enrolled in the O & E this year speak highly of the program and how the school keeps them from dropping out. To get into O & E a student must fill out an application; it is a school of choice. The reasons for attending the alternative school are as varied as the students; the need to work, the need to graduate early, the need to take care of sick family members, the real or perceived feeling that they just don’t “fit-in” at a regular high school. Deb Nott, the school’s only teacher, chooses the students from the applications submitted. Nott is teacher, counselor and main proponent for her students. Flexibility is the key to success in the alternative school, not structure.
Since the O & E is for students who do not fit the “normal” school routine, the school day looks very different from a typical middle or high school. There are no bells, the students show up at 8 am and work through the day until dismissal time at 2 pm. If a student needs a break, he/she takes it when they need. Students snack or eat lunch when they want. The curriculum, WIN, is a computer based program which stresses job readiness, English, math and technology. A student can finish one level of the program in one or two days. Most of the lessons are done individually but some are done as group work, like the writing lesson mentioned above.
The location of Washington School in central Walsenburg makes it easy for students to go home to check on sick family, be close to the health department, the Crossroads Family Center and the courthouse. The students are also able to do special projects for downtown businesses, such as the survey conducted this spring for the Governor’s “Bottom Up” economic plan. The school’s location close to most of the businesses in town made the survey possible. The governor’s office commended the students for their work in making and conducting the survey. The students are also working on gathering information about local historic sites to include in the Trails Master Plan which will be published this year.
Since O & E is apparently unstructured, there is some perception among school personnel and others in the community who feel it isn’t a “real” school; that the students are not receiving the proper education. The detractors of O & E also point to the high truancy and drop out rate and the few number of students who are served by the school each year. Nott prefers to look at the successes of the school. During the five years it has been in existence, four students have graduated, many more have earned their GED’s and some have returned to John Mall High School to complete their schooling. Without the O & E the four graduates and the others that completed their GED’s, would probably not finished school at all. These successes, Nott says, is what the school district should consider before doing away with the school.
The future of O & E is up in the air. The financially strapped school district has to cut somewhere; the alternative school, which currently has nine students enrolled, is targeted to be cut. A more modest alternative school program is proposed for next year. The current plans are to have the O & E in the west wing of John Mall High School. None of the current O & E students are pleased with the board’s decision, they contend the environment at John Mall is too distracting for them, and they learn better in their own “space.” Most of the students said they will not attend school if it is held at John Mall.