Two years ago, members of the board of directors of Lebanon Community Schools began an effort to change the way alternative education was delivered for high school students.
That vision is now a reality as 60 of Lebanon’s juniors and seniors are currently enrolled at Ralston Academy.
Located within the district’s offices on Fifth Street, the school has already started to make a difference in the lives of its inaugural class.
Rachel Cannon, director of alternative education for Lebanon Community Schools, said the initial idea wasn’t complicated.
“Nick Brooks was a big, big advocate for wanting something different for these students,” Cannon said. “He wanted it to look nicer for these kids. He wanted something better.”
A former member of the school board, Brooks recently resigned his post due to a work transfer. But before he left he was able to see the academy take shape.
As is true for all programs, the district has limited funds available for alternative education. As the working group gathered to create a new plan, the decision was made to focus on the high school students most at risk of dropping out. These students tend to be juniors and seniors who are not on track to graduate.
The district receives enough funding to hire one teacher per subject area within the alternative education program. And the planning group knew that if the program was going to succeed, classes would have to be kept small.
“We didn’t want more than 15 (in a class),” Cannon said. “Our classrooms are small anyway, so we can’t fit in more than 15.”
This forced them to set a limit of 60 spaces at the academy, and every student who attends must submit an application and take part in an interview.
The goal was simple: make Ralston Academy a place students want to attend and aren’t forced to attend.
Dawn Rose, a senior at Ralston Academy, said the setting allows her to concentrate on her studies in a way that she couldn’t at a conventional school.
“I feel like there’s a lot more help here, one-on-one help. Also, the teachers are very passionate about the work that they do. They really do care about the students and other staff. We’re more of a community here than other schools and I feel like we’re more connected. It feels more like a homey setting than a regular, traditional school, and I feel like that’s really important for some kids. They need that one-on-one assistance,” Rose said.
Rose previously attended the alternative education program offered at the Teen Center. She said that program primarily focused on online learning and didn’t provide the same sense of community.
“Now we have an actual campus, we have classrooms and it is awesome to see the alt ed program grow and expand,” Rose said.
Fellow senior Shane Herring said the individualized programs at Ralston Academy are helpful for him. His early education was hindered by frequent moves when he was younger as he lived in Lebanon, Sweet Home and Springfield before moving to Mississippi for five years. After moving back to Oregon in 2015, he lived for a time in Albany before returning to Lebanon.
“At the regular high school, I struggled with getting overwhelmed by work. The stack of work - worksheets upon worksheets - I just fell back behind everybody else,” Herring said. “At Ralston Academy you take it at your own pace. It’s really nice. I’m doing better than I ever had in high school. It’s amazing and I really do thank the teachers for that. These people are amazing.”
Rose said that both she and Herring have earned straight A’s at Ralston Academy since starting in September.
“Before Ralston that was not even a possibility for me. To be able to see that is really big,” Rose said.
Cannon said this experience is widespread among the students.
“When we did our first grades and mailed them home we had parents calling and saying they had never seen grades like this and putting them on the fridge. They were so proud,” Cannon said.
This academic success doesn’t come easy. Cannon said many students at Ralston Academy have jobs and a surprising number have full-time employment.
“These kids are so resilient. They’re here because they want to be here,” Cannon said.
Junior Cheyenne Patee said she is thankful for Ralston Academy because it has allowed her to get back on the right path academically. Patee was in foster care for several years and she fell far behind schedule during her first two years of high school.
“I’ve been through some rough times,” Patee says simply, adding that she had earned very few high school credits before starting at Ralston.
The format at the academy allows Patee to make up the freshman and sophomore credits she is missing online, while taking her junior and senior-level classes in person.
“Every one of our students has online classes they take to make up what they missed,” Cannon said.
Patee said she is much more at home in the classrooms at Ralston.
“It’s not as bad and I don’t feel as overwhelmed. I don’t feel like I need to hide myself and be in the back of the class and not say anything. I can open up and be like ‘Hey, I don’t understand this, can you please help me?’” Patee said.
Prior to accepting her current position at the start of the 2018-19 school year, Cannon worked as a special education teacher at Lebanon High School. Two years ago, she had many of the current Ralston students in her classroom at LHS.
She is very gratified to see how much their experience differs in this new setting. Students who used to be completely silent are now taking part in classroom discussions and asking questions.
“It’s been incredible to see their confidence build and their willingness to be vulnerable. Students who typically would not read aloud because they struggle with reading aloud and wouldn’t want to, I see them volunteering to read aloud,” Cannon said.
Herring is on pace to graduate in mid-spring. He plans to enroll at Linn-Benton Community College and then transfer to Western Oregon University. His goal is to make a career in the U.S. Army or in law enforcement.
Rose is also on track to graduate next spring and wants to earn a business degree. She would like to open a no-kill animal shelter that provides a place for young people to work with animals.
Cannon said that several students have already earned enough credits to graduate or have completed their General Education Development (GED) requirements. As students graduate, this opens up spaces at the Academy.
Cannon said that during Thanksgiving week the staff interviewed five prospective new students. The school operates on a schedule of six-week terms and spaces will often open up at the end of each term.
For freshmen and sophomores, alternative education will be offered at Lebanon High School and the district is continuing to operate an online program at the Teen Center for students who are best served there.
Cannon said that for some students, even the small classes at Ralston Academy can be too much and a strictly online program is the best approach. In addition, the Teen Center will serve the small number of students who are expelled each year.
But for Herring, Rose and Patee it is the staff that makes Ralston Academy special.
“They likek to get hands-on. They’re always happy and energetic. They don’t lean it to dead and boring,” Patee said.
Rose said she has an individual educational plan because she has a learning disability. She appreciates the way the instructors handle that.
“Here I feel like I’m not looked down (on) for that,” Rose said. “They don’t make me feel small or anything like that.”
Herring said the teachers have changed the way he feels about individual subjects and also the entire school experience.
“I feel like I’ve grown closer to these teachers than I have any other teachers in my past,” Herring said. “I feel like these people are my family."