Alternative school helps students to get back on track

Jason Browning is the primary teacher for the Meeker Alternative School. The alternative school was started in 1995.

Jason Browning is the primary teacher for the Meeker Alternative School. The alternative school was started in 1995.
Jason Browning is the primary teacher for the Meeker Alternative School. The alternative school was started in 1995.
MEEKER I It could be called the school of second chances.
Meeker’s Alternative School is just that — a place where students whose lives have often been interrupted by personal crises and who are struggling to keep pace in the classroom — can get back on track academically, earn a diploma and become responsible citizens.
“This room here … this is where students can get it back together,” said Cheri Robinson, who was one of the original teachers for the alternative school and still teaches English to students enrolled in the program.
“Our mission is to provide an alternative way of getting a high school diploma,” said instructor Jason Browning, who is the primary teacher for the alternative school. “The reason why it’s alternative is the work in here is self-paced. The kids don’t necessarily have to attend all day. Some of them come to school for a half day and then go to work in the afternoons. Some of them have to help pay bills for the family. Any student who is unable to attend school all day has this other option to get their high school diploma.”
In the past, before the days of the alternative school, there wasn’t that option for students.
“Because there was no other option, if you had to go to work, you weren’t going to be able to go to school. Or if you had a baby, you couldn’t go to school,” Browning said. “But we allow that.”
Students in the alternative school meet in the basement of Meeker High School, where they receive one-on-one instruction and work at their own pace, while still having the opportunity to interact with their fellow students upstairs.
“It’s a really positive thing that we’re in the regular school,” Browning said. “That way, the alternative school kids are not alienated from the rest of the school. Because we’re in the same building, they (the alternative school students) feel more involved.
“That’s one of the benefits of being in the high school … the alternative school students, they aren’t just my students, they are Meeker High School students,” Browning continued. “I think they feel that way. When asked where they go to school, they say Meeker High School, not the alternative school, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Meeker’s alternative school has been around since 1995, when it opened in the log cabin at 345 Main St., which is still owned by the school district but is currently home to a church.
“The impetus to start (the alternative school) came from the building assistance team at Meeker High School, which saw there was a huge need,” Robinson said. “We had a lot of kids whose needs were not being met and they were dropping out of school.
“Gary Cantrell, who was principal at the time, Pat Robinson, Bill Turner and Patty Stevens, those were the teachers who were on the building assistance team, they conceived of the notion of having a self-contained program that was part of Meeker High School. It was not a separate entity unto itself.”
The alternative school opened with 13 students.
“All who had dropped out,” Cheri Robinson said.
The number of students enrolled in the alternative school varies.
“The number fluctuates,” Browning said. “Right now, I have eight full-time students, but it’s been as high as 15.”
Browning has been the teacher for the alternative school for the past four years.
“We’re lucky to have Browning. He’s the heartbeat of the program,” Cheri Robinson said. “He’s kind of like the father figure. Pat Robinson (no relation) and I are the moms.”
Pat Robinson is a supplemental teacher for the alternative school, teaching science. Browning’s background is as a special education teacher. He teaches social studies at the alternative school.
“What I do is provide the materials and design the curriculum and then facilitate that. When they get stuck on something, I help,” Brown said. “But I’m not the only teacher down here. I get a lot of help.”
When the alternative school started, Cheri Robinson and Jerri Hahnenberg were the teachers. Hahnenberg is now an administrator at an elementary school in Grand Junction.
“Jerri and I did it for nine years,” Cheri Robinson said. “In those nine years, 103 students graduated, who would have not have graduated otherwise.”
Cheri Robinson said the alternative school is “successful because students get to work at their own pace, and they have a lot of individualized instruction.”
Not every student in the alternative school may succeed, but Browning said, “When a student overcomes their personal challenges and is able to get a high school diploma, that is very rewarding.”
Cheri Robinson said many of the students who have gone through the alternative school came from very difficult backgrounds.
“Heartbreaking doesn’t even cover it,” she said. “In the mainstream student body, kids don’t tell you (what’s bothering them), because they’ve learned to hide the things that are hurting them. Kids (in the alternative school) are willing to tell you what they need help with. And when they get that help, they’re capable of getting their life back together.”
One student currently enrolled in the alternative school had dropped out when she was a junior after her mother died.
“She was trying to juggle all of these pieces, and it didn’t go well for her for a while,” Cheri Robinson said.
“Since coming to the alternative school, I’ve been doing well,” the student said.
Many of the students work part time or more while attending the alternative school. And, some of them, because of their home situations, are self-supporting. They receive vocational credits for working.
Because of their work demands and other obligations, students in the alternative school have flexibility when it comes to their class schedules.
“You can do a traditional seven-hours-a-day class schedule, or whatever meets your needs and ability level,” Cheri Robinson said.
Students in the alternative school also have the flexibility to focus on one class or subject at a time, or they can take multiple subjects at the same time.
“Some kids find it confusing to take different subjects at the same time; others find that boring,” Cheri Robinson.
Some students in the alternative school also take classes in the regular high school. Students in the alternative school also “take lunch at the same time as everybody else,” Browning said.
“I have some classes upstairs,” said one student. “But I like the way it works down here … I can focus on my work.”
Another student added, “Math is my hardest subject, but it’s easier to do down here, because I can do it at my own pace.”
Students in the alternative school receive individualized instruction.
“If I need help, it’s there,” a student said. “I do better with one-on-one. With classrooms, I didn’t get the chance to have that.”
However, Cheri Robinson was quick to add, “Whether it’s here or (mainstream) classrooms, it’s the same state standards (that students are required to achieve in order to graduate).”
“It’s the same diploma,” alternative school teacher Browning added. “It’s a Meeker High School diploma.”
In the early days of the alternative school, it was sometimes misunderstood. Part of the reason it was misunderstood was, because of privacy reasons, teachers in the alternative school weren’t allowed to talk about the difficult circumstances many of the their students were living in.
“So people would have a negative understanding, because we weren’t allowed to tell them what was happening (in students’ lives), because of privacy issues,” Cheri Robinson said. “You couldn’t tell their private stories, but it was absolute legitimate schooling.”
Over the years, the public’s image of the alternative school has come a long way, Cheri Robinson said.
“I think now it’s proven itself and the community recognizes the value,” she said. “I think it has a proven track record here. One of the things I’m most proud of … these kids are all employed, they are all contributing to society.
Others have been supportive of the mission of the alternative school as well, from social services caseworkers to school counselors to court-system officials, like the late district court judge J.E. DeVilbiss.
“The judge was a friend of the alt school,” Cheri Robinson said. “I knew of one girl who had lost 17 adult teeth by the time she was a senior. Judge DeVilbiss created the Tooth Fairy Fund for kids who had serious dental problems.”
And as a whole, the Meeker community has bought into the alternative school as a viable option for students who aren’t succeeding in the traditional school.
“Our community has pulled together as one giant family to support kids. The beneficial results, we’re still reaping,” Cheri Robinson said. “There were a few naysayers early on, but usually they didn’t understand the whole picture.”
A proven track record has shown, Cheri Robinson said, the alternative school plays a critical role in the prevention of high school dropouts and gives students who, in the past may have fallen through the cracks, a chance to succeed.
“Instead of being a drain on society, the vast majority of them have got the skills to go on and be taxpayers, and many of them are going on for higher education,” Cheri Robinson said. “Our community needs to know and celebrate what they have done to help kids.”