Eugene Education Options provides valuable alternative to high school students

Jessica West, a graduating student, stands in front of one of the painted murals in the Churchill Alternative campus.

Two years ago, if someone told Shelby Roberts, 19, that she would graduate high school this year with a one-year-old son in the audience, she would have thought they were crazy. Completing high school and graduating with a high school diploma was once a far-fetched idea to Roberts until she learned she was pregnant about a year and a half ago.

It was then that she decided to go back to school after dropping out of three different high schools. Before she learned she was pregnant, she had different priorities. “I was more interested in what was happening in downtown rather than school,” Roberts said. “But after I learned I was pregnant, I knew something had to change.”

“I wanted to show my son that you could make your life better even after making a couple mistakes,” Roberts said. That was when she decided to attend Churchill Alternative High School to finish her high school diploma.

Hidden away at the corner of Churchill High School, sits a lonely brick building that used to be an auto shop. Over the door was a sign that declared its current occupation: “Churchill Alternative High School.” The building now has a plethora of vibrant colors on the walls and 13 couches arranged in a large circle. Most of the bricks on the wall are painted a different color, with a graduate’s name painted on each of them. Dozens of painted umbrellas hang overhead. These umbrellas, whose initial purpose was to reduce noise, are now an important part of the building, welcoming each person that enters. It is here that Roberts and 100 other students come to learn in a vastly different environment than the traditional high school setting.

The Churchill Alternative High School underwent a name change a couple years ago and is now referred to as one of the two campuses of Eugene Education Options (Ed Options for short). Churchill is referred to as Ed Option’s west campus, while its sister school, Parker, sits in the east.

This will be Churchill’s 16th and final year as a place where high school students may have an alternative education since its formation in 1996. Next year, it will merge with its sister school at what used to be Parker Elementary. There, approximately 300 combined students will consolidate together to make one Eugene Ed Options school.

Enrolling at the alternative school is a strict process. A certain criteria must be met in order for students to attend Ed Options. In addition to being a junior or a senior, students must be credit-deficient and must be recommended by his or her previous school.

The consolidation of the two campuses is what many Ed Option’s staff members claim is a move that has been long awaited. Financial and logistics issues are hoped to be resolved with the merging of the two campuses.

Finances are a big reason the consolidation will occur. With the current funding, the campuses cannot afford to house the growing number of students. It is also going to help teachers who have to commute between the two campuses. “We believe it will be cost effective this way,” Jennifer Haugen, Eugene Ed Options registrar, said.

The two campuses transitioning into one larger school is a highly anticipated one. It is not the first time in the Eugene 4J district that alternative campuses have merged together. This past year, North Eugene Alternative and Opportunity Center High School had joined at what used to be Parker Elementary in east Eugene.

“It was a rocky transition,” said Joe Coleman, who works in Operations and has been involved in alternative education for five years. “But after a while, it got a lot smoother.”

This next year’s transition is expected to be even stronger. “With one year of transitioning under our belt, we can expect to start a lot stronger this year,” Coleman said.

Some of the staff thinks the transition will be tough, since some students feel they are not ready. Kounovsky says he believes it is the fear of the unknown that is getting to the students. “They’ll say it’ll be difficult but soon they’ll see the new opportunities that the school will bring,” Kounovsky said. The students will have a cafeteria and a gym, things that they did not use to have at the Churchill campus.

For many of the students at alternative schools, fitting in at the regular high schools felt impossible. Roberts recalls being pushed in the hallway and having little to no friends at her first high school, Willamette High.

A graduating student at Churchill, Jessica West, had experienced even teachers telling her to drop out. “I felt like none of the teachers cared about me,” West said. “I didn’t fit into the mold.”

“I felt that if I was different, I would be shunned.” -Jessica West, student at Churchill Alternative

Little is known about the alternative education system in Eugene and the students recognize that. Roberts says she believes that many people look down upon the kids at alternative schools because they did not succeed in the conventional high school setting. “A lot of people don’t understand that we actually learn the same things,” Roberts said. “We just learn it in a different way.”

Roberts and West cite the teachers at the Churchill campus as significant guides and people who have been helpful to their school careers. One of the teachers that stand out is Lee Kounovsky. Kounovsky is the head teacher at the Churchill campus and teaches career technical education. This includes teaching carpentry in shop class, technical writing, and trades math.

Kounovsky says that building relationships with the students is a very important key for their success. “I’m Lee, not Mr. Kounovsky,” Kounovsky says. “If the students trust you, you can teach them anything.”

Kounovsky has been a teacher for 18 years and has been working at Churchill since its creation. “I remember when this school first started,” Kuonovsky said. “There was only a table and four plastic chairs.”

Kounovsky is one of four teachers at the Churchill campus. After they merge with the east campus, there will be a total of 11. After the merging, Kounovsky plans to begin a pre-apprenticeship program, which would be open to all students, in traditional or non-traditional schooling. He hopes to teach the students skills that they will use later in their career.

For Kounovsky, helping the students that don’t thrive in traditional high school settings succeed is why he loves working in alternative education. “Traditional schooling helps about 90 percent of kids,” Kounovsky said. “But not a lot people realize that there are ways to help the remaining 10 percent.”

It is 9 a.m., and four planks of wood drop onto the grass. They are divided into pairs and soon bike pedals are strapped to each plank. The goal: to be able to walk and move around while the feet of five people are strapped to the planks while someone gives them directions. They call it grass skiing.

“It was one of my favorite sessions,” Roberts said. “It was a ton of fun and we learned a lot about each other at the same time.”

Every morning, the students start their morning with sessions called “Openings.’ These sessions usually involve an activity that both engages students and teaches them valuable lessons such as teamwork, leadership, and communication.

Kuonovsky describes the sessions as summer camp-like. “We believe that if you can play and laugh, the easier it is for us to learn,” Kuonovsky said. “The students wouldn’t be intimidated to raise their hand.”

With a more lively and interactive learning environment, Ed Options students feel more comfortable than the conventional ways of learning. “We could walk around and see each other and just feel accepted,” West said.

On June 9, Roberts wore a black cap and gown with a black and silver tassel. She accepted her high school diploma with West and 30 other classmates of the class of 2012. She was also awarded Churchill’s “Turn-around” Award. Her 1-year-old son was in the audience when she walked across the stage.

A Virtual Tour of Churchill Alternative High School

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