October 12, 2008

Keeping Students in School



When Sahuarita High School senior Hector Encinas was a frosh, he fell behind in his credits. Although he improved his grades in his sophomore and junior years, he was told his lack of credits made his May 2009 graduation improbable.

When Taylor Vance asked to enroll at the high school after the start of fall classes, he was told it was too late. The senior transfer student missed too many school days and would unlikely earn his diploma next year, he was told. To graduate with the class of 2009, Encinas and Vance left high school.

But they didn't drop out.

Instead the two students enrolled in the new alternative education program for Sahuarita Unified School District high school students.

Up until now students who could not stay in the high school had to enroll in a local charter school, take online courses or go outside the district to graduate.

Now Vance and Encinas are among the 19 students who meet in a no- frills portable classroom in the parking lot opposite the district's office on Sahuarita Road. For some of these students, the utilitarian classroom will prove to be helpful for students who can't fit into a typical high school.

"We needed alternative pathways to success," said Manuel O. Valenzuela, assistant superintendent.

Helping the students is David Cohen, an alternative education teacher with 17 years experience.

"The idea is to take in kids, who for whatever reason couldn't stay in high school, and give them an alternative route," said Cohen, who came from Florida to help steer the newly created alternative education program.

In fitting with the program, Cohen has long gray and dark hair, tied back in a pony tail. His arms are inked with tattoos and he wears an earing.

But assumptions based on appearance are often wrong, Cohen said. "They find out real quick I'm very strict and demanding," he added.

The students are mostly juniors and seniors. They start school as early as 7:30 a.m. but can come in as late as 9 a.m., Cohen said. They can remain as late as 3 p.m. but they must be in class for at least four hours daily, he added. The schedule allows flexibility for students, some of whom work in the afternoons.

"Of course I encourage students to be here longer," said Cohen.

While in class the students work on their core subjects - math, history, language arts - on computers at their own speed and level. The work content is no different from a regular high school. The major difference is that instead of having various teachers and moving from room to room, Cohen guides his students, who share a single room.

Cohen said while this setup would not suit most high school students who prefer the traditional large, boisterous school campus with all its trappings, some students thrive in a small setting.

"It gives them a lot more one-on-one time," Cohen said. "It's a little more personalized."

Encinas, 18, appreciates the one-on-one attention. He's caught up with his American history work and has even gotten ahead. Initially he was leery of leaving the high school for the new alternative education program. But his counselor suggested he transfer to the program, pointing out Encinas probably would do well with computer- based instruction. The counselor was right, said Encinas, adding he's on track to graduate and he hopes to walk with his Sahuarita classmates during next year's commencement.

Vance, 17, was disappointed when he couldn't enroll at Sahuarita High. He had moved from Alaska, where he was homeschooled. He said he was looking forward to attending a large school.

But he couldn't and he looked elsewhere. An online program was suggested but Vance said "no thank you." When someone proposed the alternative education program, a skeptical Vance agreed. He's now a convert.

"This definitely is a blessing," said Vance.

Cohen said the program has its place in the larger educational picture. It provides a viable option for students who find traditional high schools impersonal or who have discipline problems.

Alternative education may still carry a negative image as the dumping ground for troubled students, but Cohen said that stereotype is wrong.

He knows from personal experience. Thirty years ago, Cohen was an "an alternative ed student." He dropped out of a high school which did not offer alternative education.

With encouragement from his parents, Cohen returned to high school, graduated, enrolled at the University of Michigan and entered the teaching profession with an emphasis and passion for students like him.

"You've got to work with these kids and give them chances," he said.

* Contact reporter Ernesto Portillo Jr. at 807-8414 or [email protected]


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