Successful Students

Mother and child board the school bus at Early College High School.

Baby, Degree and Me Makes Three

Fifteen-year-old Karina Guzmán was taking honors classes in English and history as part of the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program at her high school, and there was no doubt in her mind that she was headed for college. Then she found out that she was pregnant.

Her family took the news hard. “My grandmother is very traditional,” Guzmán said. “She took the news of me being pregnant as I couldn’t fly anymore because she believed that now my possibilities were limited.” But Guzmán refused to buy into that vision. “Sometimes having people tell you that you can’t do something gives you the strength to achieve it,” she said.

Guzmán, now 18, is achieving. She’s a senior at Early College High School (ECHS), an alternative public school in Salem, which operates as a joint venture between Salem-Keizer Public Schools and Chemeketa Community College.

The 550-student high school, now in its fifth year, educates under-served but motivated Salem-Keizer students by providing them with a rigorous high school academic program—while also creating a pathway to college classes at Chemeketa. Students attend three years of high school and two years of community college, and they end up with a diploma plus a significant number of college credits.

“My mom’s always saying, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ She sees the effort I’m putting in,” added Guzmán, who is on track both to graduate high school and receive her Associate’s Degree next year—all with her toddler daughter, Yaretzi, in tow.

Teen mothers who want to earn a high school diploma also can attend Roberts High School, Salem’s other alternative school. Students typically transfer from their regular school to Roberts—and then apply to ECHS if they set their sights on college. Both Roberts and ECHS are supported by NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign.

At both alternative schools, free day care services and parenting classes are provided to teen moms. Students who are short on credits get extra help, and school staff members, like the school’s career college specialist, help students find part-time jobs in the community.

“Education is such a big thing for me, and I want to see these students be successful,” said Carol May, a career college specialist whose position was created through a federal School Improvement Grant. What they need are new ways to think about their lives and their futures, she added. So at ECHS and Roberts, educators look at all sorts of ways to make education work for their students—sometimes turning conventional wisdom on its head.

“When I went to high school, if you got pregnant, you were just done,” said principal Lorelei Gilmore, who heads up both alternative schools. “We can’t afford to throw anyone away. My thinking is that we just haven’t found the right place for these kids. We need to focus on graduation for all, so we can’t use a cookie-cutter approach to education.”

Gilmore, the first in her family to graduate from high school and college, feels personally connected to her students.

“I know how easy it is to be on the other side of the line,” said Gilmore, her voice cracking with emotion as she talks about her students. “Through some really good adult mentoring, I got to be on this side,” which she says explains her passion for this work. “I never knew [alternative education] was my calling, but I can’t tell you how lucky I am to be doing this work.”

Gilmore said she relies on her staff to figure out together what will work for students.“I love the idea we’re holding the bar high, but we have to have multiple ways to jump that bar,” she said. “We need more educators working to reform schools—politicians don’t know kids.”

It’s students like Alexis Jones who make the case for alternative programs. Jones, who was abandoned by her mother when she was just a toddler, describes her father, at best, as someone who has dropped in and out of her life. At age 14, when she discovered she was pregnant, Jones was living with her father’s ex-girlfriend. She was immediately kicked out, leaving her homeless.

“I don’t know where I would be without Roberts because I didn’t have anywhere to go,” said Jones, wiping away tears as she explained her situation. The staff at Roberts helped her find a place to live for her and her three-year-old son.

For students like Jones, the alternative program supports and sustains them.

“I’m always here. I can’t wait until Monday,” said Jones. “My son Tyree can’t wait either. He says, ‘I love my teacher. She my best friend.’ We’re both jumping off the bus and running down the hall to get here.”

Jane Killefer, president of the Salem Keizer Education Association that represents teachers at both ECHS and Roberts, credits a high level of collaboration among staff and a strong principal for the schools’ successes.

“If we had an average, run-of-the-mill principal, we wouldn’t be able to lift up the staff and students there like we are,” said Killefer, referring to Gilmore’s collaborative leadership style. “The staff can’t be conventional because of the kids they teach. They are out-of-the-box thinkers … We have the right people on the bus.”

Collaboration at Roberts and ECHS not only improves education, it also changes lives.

“I’ve learned to take school above and beyond serious,” added Jones, who wants to pursue a degree in criminal justice so she can influence other at-risk students. “I don’t think we could have a better team here. The teachers and staff inspire us. They’ve changed my life.”

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