BEACON FALLS — Graduating from high school was an accomplishment that wasn’t on the radar for E.J. Valles a few years ago. Come next week, he will receive his high school diploma as a member of the Woodland Regional High School Class of 2015.
Valles, 18, of Beacon Falls, is one of four Woodland students that will earn their diploma thanks to the school’s fledgling alternative education program.
“I’ve been searching for a program like this since I’ve been in school,” said Valles as he sat in Woodland’s media center last week.
Woodland launched its alternative education program in February 2013. It marked the first time the school had its own alternative program. The program is designed for students who may not perform well in a traditional classroom setting; those students that are in danger of falling through the cracks and not graduating.
“For the students, it offers a different path to the same goal of every other student. It’s a Woodland diploma. This is just an alternate path,” said English teacher Paul Geary, who is in his first year as the administrator for the alternative program.
For Valles, the program was exactly what he was looking for.
Valles missed nearly 90 days of school during his freshman year at Bunnell High School in Stratford. He didn’t go back to school after his freshman year.
Valles said his mother fell seriously ill and he decided to stay home and care for her, rather than go to school. Last February, he moved in with relatives in Beacon Falls and enrolled in the alternative program. When he started the program, Valles had just .2 high school credits.
“If it wasn’t for a program like this I would have never gone back to school, ever,” Valles said. “I would have never gotten my high school diploma, especially on time.”
Evan Peters, 19, of Beacon Falls, traveled a different path to the alternative program than Valles, but the end result will be same. He too will graduate next week.
“I probably would have had to drop out and finish in adult ed,” said Peters about what would have happened had he not enrolled in the program.
Peters attended Woodland in the traditional setting through his junior year. He struggled in the traditional setting, often sleeping in classes. By the end of his junior year he had only a few credits and was absent more than he was in class.
Then he was offered the opportunity to attend the alternative program.
“I was a little skeptical,” Peters admitted, “but it seemed like a gift from God. There was no other way I could have passed high school, with still being in the high school.”
Fifteen students registered for the program this school year. The program currently runs after school from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday in a classroom off of the media center. The program is supplemented with the educational software, Odysseyware.
Each student in the program has to meet the same requirements, down to a senior project, that all other Woodland students have to in order to graduate. They are also expected to work independently at home using Odysseyware.
Valles and Peters said one of the aspects they like most about the program is that it allowed them to work at their own pace.
“It just streamlines everything. It makes it a whole lot easier for you. It makes it a whole lot easier for the teachers,” Valles said.
For Geary, the program is a valuable one for many reasons, not the least of which is offering students, who might not make it in a traditional setting, the opportunity to graduate.
“Pragmatically,” he said, “we are kind of staving several students who might very well drop out. The less students that drop out is better for the school, the towns and society.”
Aside from Geary, the program is staffed with four core subject teachers (Meghan Hatch-Geary, Robert Murdy, Ross Cooper and Jenna Broadbent) and three special education teachers (Melissa Dean, Christina MacSweeney and Ilyce Cronk).
The cost to run the program for the 2014-15 school year, which consists of staffing, transportation and software costs, is about $140,000.
Two core subject teachers and a special education teacher attend the program each day.
School counselors Doreen Metzler, Mark Dandelske and Christine Burns also work with the students, including on their transcripts and issues that may arise outside of school.
All of the staff work at Woodland during the regular school day.
“They (the staff) exemplify patience and commitment to these kids,” said Geary, who also thanked Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin, the administration at Woodland, and the Region 16 Board of Education for their continued support of the program.
Valles credited the staff, particularly former Woodland counselor Chris Albini, for helping him and for fueling his own motivation.
“All the teachers here, they keep you motivated,” Valles said.
After two and half years, the alternative program remains a work in progress.
Next school year the program will be rebranded as H.A.W.K.S. (Helping All Woodland Kids Succeed), and the daily schedule will be changed up. Geary said the schedule will be broken up to fit in more traditional, hands-on teaching.
A job program, which would place students at jobs during the day before coming to the program, is still being developed, Geary said. He added he wants to increase the relationship between the program and local colleges and trade schools.
“We look to exemplary alternative ed programs around the state and that’s what we aspire to,” Geary said.
As for Valles and Peters, their plans are set for after graduation.
Valles plans to attend Naugatuck Valley Community College and wants to study audio and video production. He produced a music video, “Mirrors,” for his senior project.
Peters has a full-time job lined up and plans to save money in order to go to college.
“I’m moving on to the next part of life now,” Peters said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that before.”