Alternative program keeps some kids in school

Published on Wed, Nov 11, 2009 by Jack Kintner

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When Cassie Eastman found herself struggling in school as a sophomore three years ago, then vice-principal Scott Ellis recommended an alternative program available through Timber Ridge high school.

The facility located on Mission Road northeast of Bellingham served students from five county school districts with alternative programs was intended to help them to stay in school.

“I had attendance problems,” said Eastman, now 19, “because it was hard to sit through class hours on end.”
Timber Ridge helped her set up a learning contract with teacher Angela Murray that involved mostly independent study, and this year she’ll graduate from Blaine and go on to Whatcom Community College to pursue a career in “something that involves history or science, or both, like archaeology,” she said. “The alternative approach helped me a lot with getting my school work done and taking responsibility, doing the work that I needed to do. I stopped goofing off and messing around a lot because I had to be more organized.”

Eastman’s decision to continue to pursue her high school diploma also means that the Blaine school district will be able to count her in the student census, a number that is directly reflected in the amount of state funding Blaine receives.

According to the school district’s business manager Donna D’Angelo, each full-time student is worth about $5,000 in state funding for the district, making the $325,000 to $350,000 it cost the district for the 35 to 40 students to attend Timber Ridge well worth it.

But Timber Ridge closed last spring when its owner, the non-profit Menta Corporation in Chicago, decided it was no longer financially viable.

Though most of the county districts chose to simply reabsorb their Timber Ridge students back into their schools, Blaine hired the Timber Ridge principal, Jason Tetlow, to set up a similar program at Blaine high school this fall.
High school math teacher Kevin Smith was assigned to work with Tetlow in what’s now called the alternative program. They have 39 students, 25 on learning contracts and another 14 who meet on campus for at least half day with Tetlow and Smith as their teachers. Aside from continuing a needed educational service, the cost to the Blaine school district is about $100,000 less per year to provide the same kind of service that Timber Ridge provided, although on a more limited scale.

Eastman, who made the transition from Timber Ridge back to Blaine and now works with Smith, said that without the program she probably would have dropped out by now.

Blaine school district superintendent Ron Spanjer is pleased with the results. “We are serving a very high percentage of the students who would have otherwise have been served at Timber Ridge high school,” he said, adding that hiring Tetlow provided “a maximum level of continuity in the transition for these students back to Blaine this fall. “Our goal remains that of providing for high quality, rigorous instruction and learning for students for whom the traditional school setting is not a feasible option.”

Tetlow, an Evergreen college graduate, and Smith, who attended Augustana College in his home state of South Dakota, both have over a decade of teaching experience, and said they enjoy the kind of teaching skills that the program demands of them.

“One thing that really makes this worth it is that these students are choosing to be a part of the program,” Tetlow said. “Kids don’t actually have to go to school at all, but with a more intensely student-centered approach than may be available in a standard classroom setting, we feel we’re able to keep a few more kids from falling through the cracks and giving up.”

Smith, who has a special education background, said that one difference between that and teaching in an alternative educational program is the variety of students he encounters. “We could have people here for any reason, like one girl who joined us because after new carpeting was put in her regular classroom her allergies became unbearable.”
Tetlow said that he enjoys the challenge of teaching in an atmosphere that emphasizes personal contact.

“The idea is to work with them to find out why they’ve become disengaged from the traditional approach and find something that works. It can be frustrating but you learn to be persistent.”

“Our success will be measured by the number of students who earn their diploma and leave Blaine prepared for post secondary education and training, or viable employment,” Spanjer said.

Both teachers insisted that the biases about the kind of student who went to Timber Ridge, characterizing them as at best misfits or worse, are untrue.

“These are Blaine kids, so they’re not ‘coming back,’ they’ve been here all along. Some of them have made bad decisions, but that just means they need this program because they still have some important things to learn,” Tetlow said, “and we feel that we’re finding effective ways to do that.”

Tetlow added that he was happy to be at Blaine school district because of its commitment to alternative methods.
“The only other county district which was involved in Timber Ridge’s 10-year run that’s making an effort to continue providing this service is Mt. Baker.

“Otherwise, for the other students it’s sink or swim and we don’t feel that works very well.”