In the community of 1,700 students at Juneau-Douglas High School, one size cannot always fit all.
For some students, problems at home, problems with drugs and alcohol or different styles of learning make it easy to get lost in or give up on school, according to former JDHS teacher Mark Roschy.
"Before we can ask (students) when the Civil War was, we really need to focus on their basic needs" such as stability, self-confidence and a sense of belonging, he said. "You won't die without them, but you won't function in society without them."
To meet those needs and give at-risk students the tools they need to succeed in the workplace and society, CHOICE - Choosing Healthy Options In Cooperative Education - was founded five years ago by Roschy and Laury Scandling, now an assistant principal at JDHS.
The efforts of the CHOICE teachers - and the success of the program resulted in a national teaching award from USA TODAY last week.
CHOICE is a four-teacher, full-curriculum program for freshmen, sophomores and juniors, housed in the Marie Drake building adjacent to JDHS. Its key features include extended class periods, twice-weekly small-group meetings to discuss personal issues in and out of school, community service projects and mandatory work experience.
The work experience is designed in "tiers," Scandling said: Hands-on work skills projects for freshmen, job shadowing with for-profit and nonprofit organizations for sophomores and government internships for juniors.
The program also incorporates several retreats each year. Last week, CHOICE juniors spent time at the Southeast Alaska Guidance Association's Eagle Valley Center's ropes course to work on team- and confidence-building activities, while sophomores attended a retreat at Chapel by the Lake on building healthy relationships.
The student-program relationship is give-and-take. Students must apply to enter CHOICE, and must agree to abide by a set of rules in order to receive benefits such as the retreats and being allowed to have food in the classroom. There are consequences for poor behavior and low grades. For example, if a student's grades slip below a 70 percent average, they must participate in after-school study sessions.
Despite the efforts of CHOICE teachers, many students still do not complete high school. CHOICE's graduation rate stands at about 50 percent.
"The kids who don't graduate, they're still better off," Roschy said, noting that many of those students still spent more time in school than they would have without CHOICE.
At their ropes course retreat Thursday, CHOICE juniors spoke about their experience in the program over the last three years.
One student commented that in the main high school building, he sometimes felt like just "a name and a grade."
"CHOICE is more like a family," said Dawn Wright. "CHOICE made me look at my overall high school career. They made it to where I realize what I can do if I stay in school."
"A lot of people drop out because (the main building) is just too fast," Bryan McDaniel said. "CHOICE keeps it at your pace."
Teachers said they notice a sense of community forms in each class.
"You'll see students in CHOICE hanging out or talking and you can tell they're from different cliques," teacher Lisa Eagan said. "In the regular high school, I don't see those barriers breaking down."
The current CHOICE staff consists of Eagan and Barbara Bonner; Elizabeth Dahl and Ned Clooten, who replaced Scandling and Roschy this year; and several assistants and counselors. Scandling continues to oversee CHOICE.
CHOICE teachers said their involvement can be emotionally draining, especially when students they have grown to know well slip away.
"You grieve a lot in this program because you cannot help but care," Scandling said. "You empathize (with students), and then you may lose them. It's hard not to take it personally."
What teachers said keeps them going is the students - once in a downward spiral - who raise their grades, hold a steady job or receive their diploma.
"The students are so motivating," Eagan said. "When you have someone like that (you think), 'Oh my God, I made a difference.' "
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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