OAKHURST – One high school educator wants the community to know that there are local alternatives to the educational model offered at traditional high schools.
Mary Beth Harrison is the lead teacher at Evergreen Alternative High School, the independent study high school in the Yosemite Unified School District.
“I want the community to know that we’re here and that there are options in our district. There’s a way for every single student in our area to graduate.”Alternative schools fill a necessary niche. Through independent study, students are able to take as many classes as their situation allows, and complete their education in a time frame that works for them.
“With independent study, students come to see their teacher once a week,” Harrison explains. “During that appointment time they take their tests, get help with anything they may be struggling with, and pick up their new assignments.”
Currently 40 students are enrolled at Evergreen, taught by Harrison and her co-teacher Cindy Happ-Jett.
“We get a wide variety of students,” says Harrison, “Some just benefit from more one-on-one contact with their teacher, and they have our undivided attention while they’re here.”
Evergreen is a path to graduation and success when the traditional high school structure or schedule isn’t an option. Perhaps a student works full time and needs to tailor their education to fit those hours, or they have health issues that may make navigating a large campus all day a challenge. Some may have come from out of state and find themselves behind in credits.
“We also have a very strong and active teen parenting program, so for someone expecting or who already has a child, this type of education works out well. It allows moms to be at home with their kids.”
The teen parenting group consists of young parents from Yosemite High School, Ahwahnee and Evergreen. The group is currently made up of 12 students and includes two teenage dads.
“We have a volunteer who comes in and teaches them labor and delivery and she shows no mercy on those boys. They have to get down on the floor and practice the exercises and the breathing.”
Harrison points out that participating in the teen parenting program helps battle the common problem of isolation.
“We have a time on Thursdays when all the teen parents are here at once. Three are Yosemite students who come over to participate in our parenting activities, plus our students here at Evergreen and those from Ahwahnee. We might have a guest speaker or a movie or some kind of activity that helps them learn about being a good parent.”
They also have volunteers who watch the babies of the teen moms during class. Two of them, Judy Firestine and Renee Williams, have been volunteering since 1991.
(Photo – The Teen Parenting class enjoyed a visit from Santa Claus in December. All babies and moms-to-be received gifts. Pictured left to right, back row, Taylor Winn, Itzajana Castillo-Vazquez, Jeff Hartwig (Santa and paraeducator), Mary Beth Harrison (teacher), Rachel Capps with baby Christopher, Carizma Turner with baby Lillian. Front row: Cindy Happ-Jett (teacher), Brittaney West with baby Jaden, and Roberta Tackett, volunteer).
They also find innovative ways to work in concert at Evergreen, even though they’re not all together at the same time. In one art project, students and staff were each given a small piece of an unknown picture to copy onto a sticky note. “Marilyn” was the assembled result of this group art project.
So how does the process begin for those just entering the school? Harrison says the first session with a newly enrolled Evergreen student is critical.
“When I meet a new student, I have about an hour to get to know that student and their needs. I evaluate their transcript and see what classes they need.” They then put together a plan that will create a path to success in a format that works for everyone.
Students enrolled at Evergreen may be independent but they are expected to be successful in school.
“It’s a privilege to be here and they need to be successful in order to continue in the program,” says Harrison.
A teacher who works on independent study is required to teach all subjects, and according to Harrison, “it definitely keeps you on your toes.” But that may not always be the most challenging part of the position.
“There are a few sad stories as to why some kids are here. Maybe they don’t have parents who care if they go to school or not. Or kids have to work and contribute to the family’s budget. Or they have a problem with alcoholism already and their lives have been so consumed by it that their skills are low. So you are always your student’s teacher, but here you’re almost a substitute parent sometimes.”
Apart from the trials some young people may have on their journey through Evergreen, it’s a big thrill to all when students make it through the program to graduation. Having been with Evergreen since 1992, Harrison has seen a lot of kids come in, and has watched as proud, talented graduates go out.
“When our students graduate we have such a celebration because it really is like watching your own child graduate. That’s the best thing. Also, they come back for years and years to visit. I have students who still stop in to see us who are in their thirties, and they are so grateful that we were here.”
For more information check out the district website for alternative schools, or call 559 683-8801.