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Traditional feast, alternative learners

Get-together joins students across county

Brent Boyer

Traditional public schools didn’t work for Josh Flaharty.

The shy 17-year-old who lives in Oak Creek barely made it through his freshman year at a Kansas high school. But he’s since found a comfortable fit at Routt County Alternative School, a six-student program funded by the South Routt School District.

“I can go at my own pace, which is sometimes fast and sometimes slow,” Flaharty said. He attends school during the morning before driving to Steamboat for his full-time job. A junior, Flaharty plans to earn his high school diploma and possibly attend college. One of his dreams is to open a snowmobile shop.

There are many other Routt County students like Flaharty — students who for one reason or another struggled in traditional middle schools and high schools but who are finding success in the alternative programs offered by all three local school districts.

Many of the county’s alternative high school students gathered in Steamboat last Thursday for a Thanksgiving lunch intended to provide an opportunity to meet other students and possibly make new friends.

Seated around four large tables, about a dozen students feasted on turkey, mashed potatoes and all the other fixings associated with the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Although many of the students were shy and reserved during the get-together, they made perfectly clear the effect alternative high school programs are having on their lives.

Many said they’d no longer be in school if the alternative options didn’t exist. Indeed, curtailing the number of students who dropout of school is a prime motivation for the creation of alternative schools. The Steamboat Springs School District created two new alternative programs this fall.

The first, called Students Engaged in Active Learning, is a program geared toward helping students who wish to remain at Steamboat Springs High School but aren’t finding success in the traditional classroom format. The second is a separate alternative high school program housed in the George P. Sauer Human Services Center. The latter program is aimed at students expelled from the traditional high school or those who simply no longer want to attend school there.

Sophomore Devon Miller “hated” attending Steamboat Springs High School but enjoys his brief experience in the alternative program taught by Marlene Horace.

“It’s a better atmosphere,” Miller said. “The teacher is very patient and more attuned to our needs.”

Miller said he’s learning a lot and able to earn better grades while still working on the same curriculum used at the regular high school.

“My class is great,” Horace said. “They’re wonderful.”

Ken Neis leads Hayden School District’s cyber school, a 15-student program that offers a variety of online courses. Neis tracks the progress of each student and provides tutoring when necessary.

He worries that some of the students in alternative programs could suffer socially from the small nature of the programs.

“These are small programs,” Neis said. “I think the kids get a little isolated. We’re trying to establish a social atmosphere for them.”

Thursday’s group lunch was one of the first steps toward achieving that goal.

Donna Weinman is a first-year teacher at Routt County Alternative School, which serves six full-time students.

Weinman thinks most, if not all, of her students are capable of succeeding academically in traditional school settings. But for a variety of reasons they struggle in that atmosphere, and the alternative schools provide them an opportunity to earn their high school diplomas in a comfortable setting that better fits them.

Her program emphasizes self-directed learning coupled with teacher-directed curriculum. Some of her students have internships with local businesses.

“It’s what each student makes of it, just like in traditional schools,” Weinman said. “The goal is to have each student challenge (him or herself).”

Routt County Alternative School student Chris Berry enjoys directing his own schooling.

“I like it a lot better than the regular school,” Berry said. “You get a lot more choice and freedom in what you want to do.”

But all three teachers want to ensure their students also have the opportunity to meet other students and get a sense of belonging in the community.

“I think it went well,” Weinman said about the lunch. “We have (kids from) two different schools out there (playing hacky-sack) together. That’s what it was all about.”


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