About a year and a half ago, a pair of Skyview administrators approached school district officials.
“We just know we have a lot of kids in our buildings, where it just isn’t working,” said Skyview assistant principal Jay Wahl.
The pitch was for some sort of alternative school; a setting catered to getting struggling students as close to on-track as they could. Officials explored the idea of a large setting at the Lincoln Center, but instead opted to create the Altitude classroom at Skyview to serve as a “school within a school.”
During the first week of the classroom’s rollout in January, teacher Cameron Icenoggle worried that he was driving Wahl and other administrators nuts.
“It was really, really relaxed,” Icenoggle said. Students learned the electronic system that would allow them to self-pace their coursework and simply got to know each other and the “teacher-advisers,” Icenoggle and James Bullock.
“That’s really 100 percent of what this is,” Icenoggle said.
Principal Drew Ueker has a joke (that maybe isn’t really a joke) he likes to tell about his conference table at Paris Gibson Education Center in Great Falls.
He plans to burn it someday, wiping away the stories of heartbreak and abuse he’s heard from students.
Paris Gibson is a full-fledged alternative school, one of the few in Montana. It enrolls about 270 students who attend for some or part of the school day, in conjunction with primary high schools. Thirty more are on a wait list.
The school, along with a handful of other programs around the state, served as a model for what Skyview is trying to build. Icenoggle and Bullock visited Paris Gibson earlier this school year, and they sing its praises.
Some students battle the effects of childhood trauma, which neurological research has shown affects their behavior and ability to learn. Ongoing issues often affect school attendance.
Ueker happily greets them whenever they show up.
“If I can get them into the building for a half a day this week, then I know I’m going to have a full day next week, and I might have two days the following week,” he said.
That profile doesn’t fit every student at Paris Gibson; about 20 percent are A and B students, Ueker said, who aren’t interested in prom and football games, or in following a traditional four-year plan with six-period days and 45-minute classes.
A consistent theme remains for each student.
“You have to earn your way in,” Ueker said. “You cannot fail your way in.”
A student dropping by the Altitude classroom to see a friend bounces a question off Icenoggle: Is it true that you have to fail a class to be in here?
In some ways, yes. And in some ways, no.
Altitude admission works on a referral process. Administrators, counselors and teachers meet to discuss students being considered for placement in the program.
When Wahl talks about some students, you hear echoes of Ueker.
“You might not see them Monday, and then you’ll see them Friday, and they’ll have a heck of a story for you. And a lot of the time it’s true,” Wahl told school trustees in December. “Six weeks (into a class), they’re failing miserably in the class. Then the behaviors take over.”
Other times, students resemble the 20 percent Ueker described.
“I looked at their GPA,” said Icenoggle, citing one student. “If you just looked at that piece of information, it wouldn’t make sense.”
Some procedures for the classroom are being developed “on the fly,” he said, like plans for making sure failure can’t continue in the Altitude classroom — “how is a kid not allowed to continue?”
For Paris Gibson admissions, “we do say no to some students,” Ueker said. ”If you’re terrorizing one of the other schools, you’re not coming our way, not until you’ve earned your way in.”
Alternative schools across the country have been criticized for becoming repositories for students main high schools don’t want to deal with — with the sharpest critics arguing that the new setting can actually be detrimental to struggling students.
“That’s exactly what we don’t want it to be,” said Skyview Principal Deb Black. “It can’t be a dumping ground.”
The walls of the Altitude classroom are aimed at helping students avoid that. About 15 names are on each wall, with sheets of paper near Icenoggle’s or Bullock’s desk, a system swiped from Paris Gibson. Below the names are a series of letters and numbers. Some are crossed off. Others remain unmarked.
Most Altitude students spend one or two periods per day in the classroom. A handful spend three or four. They peck away at laptops, working through coursework for science, English or math classes on a computer program called Gradpoint.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, students had headphones in and smartphones out. They talked with each other. There was no lecture, no daily plan up on a blackboard.
Students are expected to make progress through electronic lessons, sometimes for classes they’ve already failed, sometimes for classes they’re taking for the first time.
On some days, progress moves faster than others.
“If you’re having a bad day we say, OK, relax, take a breather,” Icenoggle said. “It’s all, show up, do what you can. As long as we’re staying on top of our goal setting, following the small goals, the larger goals will come.”
Icenoggle helps students with questions, and tracks their progress in the electronic system. The software lets him see what students are up to on their laptops.
A little YouTube here and there? That’s fine. But if it’s a full day of videos, Icenoggle or Bullock will have a check-in conversation about goals.
Icenoggle was trained as a social studies teacher. His professional path has been more roundabout, with stints teaching English at Skyview and working in a resource room at Lewis and Clark Middle School. He had a periodic table out on his desk Thursday, brushing up on his science.
Students don’t need help with school work only.
“Some days that’s academics, some days that’s more mental-emotional — whatever the kid needs that day,” Icenoggle said.
“If life happens to a kid on Monday night and we don’t have them until Friday, we just welcome them in the door,” Wahl said.
There’s another wall in the Altitude room, something of a happy accident. It was previously painted with a special black paint, turning it into a chalkboard.
Icenoggle and Bullock turned it over to students; it’s now adorned with names, nicknames and other designs.
“We want the kids to kind of own this space for themselves,” Icenoggle said. “We want it to be their anchor point in the school.”
It may not be a permanent space. Icenoggle said enrollment is already higher than expected, and demand seems to be high. At the school board meeting Wahl pushed for a more sweeping program.
“We’ve got to start looking for an alternative school for our district,” he said. “Very similar to what we’re talking about here, but on a bigger level.”
When trustee Greta Besch Moen asked if the program was expected to improve graduation rates, Skyview assistant principal Scott Lynch gave a blunt answer.
“(Success) may not look like graduation,” he said.
“For these kids, normally that’s what they see and that’s what they hear: OK, graduation. That’s where you want to be,” Wahl said in a later conversation. “We hope it’s a diploma, but it may be Montana Youth Challenge, it may be a HiSET (high school equivalency test) diploma, it may be Job Corps, it may be just enough work study that they do with us or internships.”
It's an alternative.