On an early September morning, the staff of Al Kennedy High School gathered in a room at the South Lane School District offices. The Sentinel had approached the district in the prior weeks about chronicling the teachers and students at Kennedy to tell the story of alternative education through the lens of those on the ground. District administrators thought it was a great idea. Kennedy staff had questions. Eight educators sat in a room with a newspaper editor and had a conversation. At the end, they’d come to an understanding: The truth is the truth and the kids come first. Over the course of the 2017-2018 school year, the Sentinel will tell the story of these educators and their students as they navigate a location change, funding gaps and the unfortunately true narrative that sometimes working hard isn’t enough and an education doesn’t fix everything. We’ll tell stories of triumph, tragedy and truth as the tribe at Kennedy makes the most with what it has in its continued effort to slingshot students up and over the barriers to progress through understanding, commitment and engagement while acknowledging the reality that some kids won’t make it.
Halie Ketcher has moved 11 times in her life but she’s never had a move as difficult as the last one.
Two days after being appointed principal of Al Kennedy High School, she oversaw the move of 94 students (and everything that came with them) four miles north of Cottage Grove to their new home in Saginaw; a space called Delight Valley that they would share with a pre-school and where they would contend with a shrinking move-in budget while new projects around the school district saw millions in bond money. It was a lot of baggage.
“There was some concern in the community,” former Kennedy Principal Mike Ingman said. He began the move as principal at the end of the 2016-2017 school year before a domino effect started by the resignation of Cottage Grove High School principal Iton Unosenata, would see Ingman take the top spot at the traditional high school and Ketcher, behind the big desk at Kennedy. The move to Delight Valley, Ingman said, meant a longer trek for students in rural Oregon where a car ride is not always guaranteed and the suggestion of moving the community’s alternative high school was labeled a bad idea.
Bad. Because in Cottage Grove—where the median yearly income is $37,058 and 22.5 percent of residents live in poverty-- the perception is that the alternative school is for the students who can’t be good, a common notion in a national education system that ranks students by tests scores and pays schools a dollar amount per head. In Cottage Grove, it’s $143 per student, per day.
There are 81 alternative high schools in the state of Oregon.
Kennedy joined their ranks after Al Kennedy saw his former students playing a knife game outside a class they were supposed to be in. The kids had been part of the Cottage Grove High School’s forestry program, led by Kennedy, before it was cut from the curriculum. “…All of the redneck kids in Cottage Grove took forestry,” Kennedy, a teacher of 45 years, said. “So, I had the badass boys and then they canceled forestry and I watched my badass boys go into traditional programs and stink them up and disrupt them because they were confrontational and ornery,” he said.
Kennedy approached the administration.
He was given a classroom and all of the “bad” kids.
Since then, Kennedy has seen the program grow from a classroom of students, to being recognized as a school and to now having their own campus. “I drove the model-T and they are in a Cadillac,” he says of the transformation.
“In alternative school the rule is: you pursue your passion and I’ll turn it into math, science and social studies…Like a kid comes up and says, I’m into tattooing. I said, that’s great. I want a report on the history of tattooing next week,” he said. “At a traditional school it is more like being in the marching band and you’ve got to stay in step and play your instrument at the same time. At alternative school it’s not like being in a band, it’s like taking private music lessons,” he said.
While ideologies and teaching methods between Kennedy and the traditional Cottage Grove High School are easily compared, the significance of statistics on student performance is more difficult to pin down.
Kennedy’s four-year graduation rate for the 2015-2016 school year was 16.67 percent. Cottage Grove High School’s was 93.62 percent—second in the state of Oregon.
“When I look at these statistics, I compare them to other alternative high schools,” said South Lane Superintendent Krista Parent. “We’re having kids finish. Many of them dropped out and we got them back by offering Kennedy. If it had not been for Kennedy, they would have been high school drop outs with an eighth or ninth grade education,” she said.
Parent also noted the nature of Kennedy, stating that students often arrive there with large educational gaps. The school’s five-year graduation rate for the same time period in 2015-2016 was 26.87 percent; more than a 10 percentage point jump.
“When you look at the Cottage Grove High School graduation rate for the last three years, it’s been in the top three in the state. But, if not for Kennedy, those kids would have dropped out and counted as drop outs for Cottage Grove High School’s drop-out rate,” Parent said. The 2015-2016 drop-out rate for Cottage Grove High School is less than one percent. Kennedy’s was 19.8 percent.
Ketcher acknowledges that the goal is to send kids to college, but that may not be feasible for every Kennedy student.
They face poverty, (25 percent of the students attending Kennedy are considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act and one-third of the district's homeless population attends the school), teen pregnancy, unstable home lives and learning disabilities but Kennedy has become more than a statistic. The reasons students find themselves there are varied and weighted by each individual student’s passions, progress and personal struggles.
One of them
And there is no teacher or administrator more familiar with what the students are going through than Ketcher.
One of four kids, Ketcher grew up on a farm in Minnesota with a family that did not have money and did not put an emphasis on education. Her mom dropped out of school the first week of freshman year in high school and her dad, in the first week of his sophomore year.
And so, when Ketcher walked into kindergarten on the first day she did not know any of the letters in the alphabet. She didn’t begin reading until she was in the third grade.
“I was in Special Ed not because I had a learning disability but because I was a product of poverty,” she said.
But in fifth grade when a teacher spent extra time working with her, her outlook changed.
“I had a teacher that stayed after school with me every day and read with me and cheered me up. And when I would cry she would be like, ‘I’m not going to take that, you’re going to wipe those tears away and we’re going to read this book and we’re going to do it right now,’” she said.
It was then that Ketcher decided she was going to be a teacher.
With her family living paycheck to paycheck, Ketcher earned straight A’s in high school, was on the cheer team, worked 30 hours a week and was excited and ready to go to college.
“My mom thought that going to college was the dumbest thing I could ever do. She thought, why would you pay money to go to school. I would have paid money to get out of school,” she said.
Ketcher got her degree at Arizona State and on graduation day, was offered a teaching job.
Of her 23 cousins, she is the only one to go to college but then, and now, Ketcher believes in the power of education. She believes that it offers students a way forward and that it can provide a path to success. And it is why she chose Kennedy.
“This is what took me out of the loop of poverty and so I hope that kids will grasp onto that,” said Ketcher.
“These kids are me.”
And they know that. On a sunny day in September, a student walked into Kennedy’s main office—a modular on the back half of campus manned by Jolie Presley with an office for Ketcher that has a separate entrance, often utilized by students, slipping by Presley--with a problem. He needed to log into a computer program and was hoping for some guidance from Ketcher. He got it. Like an older sister who gives a shove, a laugh and soothes the sting with a pat on the back, she told him to hurry along in his work. He was too close to graduation to drag his feet.
“He has like, three projects left that he can easily finish,” she said later. A handful of projects between a student and graduation is a cause for celebration for alternative school instructors but for students, it’s often more daunting. “They like it here, it’s comfortable and graduation means leaving,” she said, noting that the future isn’t always mapped out for students by the time they are closing in on the end of their high school career.
Cottage Grove’s economy revolves largely around the school district itself. It’s the largest employer in town with Weyerhaeuser—the local lumber mill, coming in a close second. Salaried jobs are few and far between while hourly positions in the retail and service industry are mostly occupied—often by individuals a decade or more removed from high school. The closest city, Eugene, offers more opportunity but is 20 minutes north on the highway and is home to the University of Oregon which churns out interns, willing entry-level workers and comes with a $3,224 per term price tag.
How it Works
When each student first gets to Kennedy, they meet with Ketcher to talk about why they are there and to figure out what program they should be placed in. The 94 students at Kennedy are divided into three distinct programs: Odysseyware, the cohorts and the General Education Development (GED) program.
Odysseyware is where students will likely first end up. The five day a week, half-day program has 15 students in the morning and 15 students in the afternoon. It is a computer-based classroom that has students who are credit-deficient, start work on their own as they begin the process of catching up to where they need to be in school.
“Odysseyware is a perfect opportunity for kiddos who have anxiety,” said Ketcher. “However, Odysseyware isn’t a program where you earn a ton of credit so it is not a long-term solution. It’s just temporary until they feel comfortable to move into the cohort.”
The cohort model most closely resembles the traditional high school model. There are three cohorts with about 15 students each, primarily made up of juniors and seniors, that go to their three core classes of math, science and English for an hour and a half four days a week for the entirety of the year.
Cohort students also participate in Spark programs – which resemble electives and are an hour each day – throughout each term. The Spark programs cover a range of topics that students are interested in and they get to help shape the curriculum for the coming weeks. The Sparks that are currently being taught are focused on storytelling, music, martial arts, green living and arts and crafts. Additionally, on rotating Wednesdays one of the cohorts go to Quamash Prairie where they assist with wetland restoration.
The final group is the GED program. This program of 15 students meets every day in the morning to prepare students to take tests in social studies, science, math, reading and writing. While other GED programs are more laid back, Ketcher, who ran the program before becoming principal, prides herself on the setup of the program.
“We do a hands-on GED program. So, the kiddos come in, the teacher is teaching lessons. She’s teaching math, science, language arts, social studies every day. And so, they’re coming in – Monday through Friday – and they’re coming in they’re getting instruction,” said Kecher. “And they have to meet attendance requirements in order for us to pay for them to take tests because we’re investing in their success, they have to invest in their success.”
In addition to the three groups, the students also have opportunities to work and go on trips on Fridays. One way to work is through the crew program that works 8-3 (Mondays for GED and Odysseyware students and Fridays for cohort students) on conservation work that includes trail maintenance, wetland restoration and planting trees. The students have to submit a resume and fill out an application for this work and then get paid minimum wage. To even have the chance to work crew, students must have at least 90 percent attendance in school.
Three times a month, a teacher takes a group of 15 students to experience hands on learning. From salmon spawning to a three-day trip to the Redwoods, the trips take students to learning experiences and add in a college visit for students as well.
"Kennedy High School. I like the sound of that," South Lane School Board President Sherry Duerst-Higgins said during a school board meeting last June.
The agenda called for the consideration of changing Al Kennedy Alternative High School's moniker to strip the school of ‘alternative.’ It was the second in a string of changes to hit the school this past summer.
"The staff was hesitant when we approached them but 75 percent of the students said they'd like the 'alternative' removed," Ingman, who was in the middle of his transition to Cottage Grove High School at the time, told the board.
"That's not to say that 25 percent of the students wanted to keep 'alternative.' They had other suggestions," he said.
However, no other name changes were considered.
The board voted unanimously to approve the name change just days before appointing Ketcher to her position as principal at Kennedy and a handful of weeks before students would begin helping her move the entirety of the school from its place in the portables next to the community pool to its home at Delight Valley.
“I never liked the alternative label. It’s just one of our schools,” Parent said. “It used to be that you had to fail terribly at Cottage Grove High School to go to Kennedy. But now, that’s a choice. I’m a big advocate of giving kids a choice. What works for you, may not work for me.”