GOSHEN COUNTY – Jacob Martin has never taught in a school district that offered an alternative high school program to its students.
But, if the Wyoming Department of Education gives its approval to a plan presented last week by Goshen County School District No. 1, he will get that chance, starting next year.
The idea is simple – provide a place where those students who, for whatever reason, may be falling through the cracks, or who don’t work to their best potential in a traditional classroom setting, to learn, said Torrington High School Principal Chase Christensen. He authored the plan and sent the application to Wyoming DOE for final approval following the GCSD Board of Trustees meeting on April 7.
The tentative name for the proposed program is the Platte River School. That may change, Christensen said. But the concept will remain the same.
“Programing for the alternative school is going to revolve around the same we’re using for our core classes – science, social studies, math,” Christensen said. “With teacher support, mental health support, everything in that same room.
“In the plan I wrote, I tried to be fairly open on my thinking about all the possibilities of who could be serviced by the school,” he said. “In the plan, it’s written up so students can graduate.”
The idea is to overcome any of potentially dozens of different barriers to that benchmark of student success. Several things in an individual student’s life outside the classroom can block their road to success.
“Sometimes in the regular classroom, as best as we try, sometimes there are kids that need a little bit more attention; maybe we can’t give them everything they need,” Martin said. “To be able to have an alternative teaching or alternative schooling or classroom situation really allows us to be able to focus on the whole students, which is really the purpose of an alternative teaching situation.
“There may be situations where kids are helping out their own families by working,” he said. “Who knows? They’re maybe helping pay utilities, helping pay rent, whatever it may be. There are definitely those situations here in Goshen County.”
Christensen and Superintendent Ryan Kramer, both of whom are relatively new to GCSD, came to Goshen County from districts with strong alternative school programs in Wyoming and Iowa, respectively. Kramer spoke of students who’d benefited from the South Sioux County (Iowa) High School alternative program, including several who might never have graduated had the program not been available.
“Students who were completely set into the alternative school, worked with alternative teachers to work around family, work commitments, anything extenuating outside of school,” Kramer said. “We had a number of students who, in their freshman and sophomore years, were looking at being way behind their peers.
“I can think of one student specifically who had the option of going into that program,” he said. “He graduated with his peers and had a job lined up with the construction company he’d been apprenticed with.”
Plans for the Platte River School here were delayed, they said, due to a state-mandated moratorium on starting up new alternative programs from the DOE. Christensen believes the state shut down new programs after a first round of development to observe how those schools were performing before allowing new ones to get off the ground.
That moratorium was lifted in March and Christensen and Kramer – who’d been talking about the idea for several months – decided to go ahead and submit a plan and application to the state. Presented to the Board of Trustees on April 7, their proposal received immediate support from the local governors.
The Platte River School, if approved, will operate wholly with current staffing. As of now, the school will be located in a little-used – and little-known – classroom off the gymnasium in the bowels of THS.
While the application process to the DOE is open until July 17, Christensen hopes to hear word by the end of this month. All that needs to be done then will be a little bit of construction to build individual work spaces for students that could be done by district maintenance and custodial staff.
“If we had to turn it on tomorrow, we probably could,” Christensen said.
“There will be no additional staffing costs, things like that,” Kramer said. “It really is a separate high school, but it involves Mr. Christensen rolling some staff scheduling into the alternative high school.”
There’s are definite problems of perception and stigma attached to alternative school situations, the educators said. Such programs are often viewed as being only for troublemakers or students who can’t – or won’t – succeed in a traditional classroom setting.
But that’s the wrong way to look at an alternative high school program, THS instructor Martin said. No one can really say what’s happening in a student’s life outside the classroom that’s impacting their education.
Martin has been teaching for five years and this is his first year in Goshen County, where he teaches World Civilizations and Cultures and Foundations of Social Studies. In that relatively brief time, though, Martin has met students he believes could benefit from the different educational environment an alternative high school program could offer – some of them right here in Goshen County.
“In five years, I have encountered students who would benefit from an alternative program,” Martin said. “Sometimes in the regular classroom, as best we try, sometimes there are kids that need a little bit more attention.
“Maybe we can’t give them what they need,” he said. “So, to be able have an alternative teaching or alternative schooling or classroom situation really allows us to be able to focus on the whole students, which is really the purpose of an alternative teaching situation.”
The answers can range from more one-on-one time with teachers to simply having a space to go to where they can work, undisturbed, to allow them to concentrate on their assignments, Martin said.
“Alternative schools do have a stigma that’s attached to them. I think, too often in education, we get involved in this cookie-cutter-world view,” he said. “We, as humans, we’re way to deep and diverse for that cookie-cutter mold.
“But our biggest purpose is to allow kids to excel,” Martin said. “That’s what we’re going to do here in Goshen County. That’s obviously going to look different for every student.”