Jacqueline Brazil is the teacher of record for Hamilton High School’s Alternative Learning Center. The center was originally located inside Bitterroot College but now has its own building in what was the former home of Early Head Start.
“We have more students now,” said Laura Tally, the paraeducator that works with Brazil. “It doesn’t look like a school, and that’s an advantage.”
The ALC serves grades 10-12. Students who attend are either credit-deficient or regular school isn’t working out for them for various reasons. The school runs five days a week, with students attending for half days at either a morning or afternoon session.
Brazil has been running the school for the past four years. She’s a certified teacher in art and education for K-12. Brazil said the goal of the ALC is to make sure these kids graduate. She said many of them are repeating classes that they may have failed before coming to the ALC. That means they have some experience and know what they need help with. She said kids often end up in the ALC because they have full-time jobs. They might be the main breadwinners in their families, which cuts into the time they have available for school work. Students do receive vocational credits and some local businesses provide internships, a program Brazil would like to see expand.
Brazil said the make-up of the students started out as mostly male. In the first year there were only two girls, in the second year there were three and now it’s about half and half. Mondays through Thursdays, the focus is on core subjects – math, science, history. All the students are working on their own, at their own pace. They all take at least one online course. On Fridays, students take electives.
“We create learning experiences that are appropriate to each student’s strengths,” said Brazil. She said the students’ work is graded, just as in the traditional high school. “If a student isn’t passing, we go back and re-teach the materials.”
Fitness is another component of the curriculum. Tally is a member of Corvallis Athletic Crossfit, and the students go there to use the facility to meet their PE credit requirements.
“The students who come here are the ones who would not have been able to graduate in four years,” said Brazil. “This is one more layer of intervention to make that happen.”
The success rate is high, said Brazil. The students look forward to graduating and attending the ceremony with everyone else. “It’s an exciting time,” she said.
As an employee of the Bitterroot Valley Education Co-op, Brazil worked for 10 years in the Hamilton Middle School doing Comprehensive School and Community-based Treatment (CSCT), an on-site school mental health and behavioral program, before accepting the position at the ALC. She took over from Bob and Linda Carmody who started and ran the ALC for years. Brazil shadowed them for a week to learn the ins and outs of the program.
In her spare time, Brazil plays guitar and sings in the local band, “Tin Cup.” Tally also has a music background, so they have added music to the curriculum.
On a recent Friday, the students were doing lots of different activities. Many of them were making valentines for a local nursing home. That project was headed up by Madison Connelly as her senior project, a requirement to graduate.
“I organized a Valentines Day card drive for the Sapphire Homes, with the help of my classmates,” said Connelly. “It’s a good way to show important members of our community love and comfort when they may need it the most. I felt it was a positive way to spread the feeling of love and warmth to somebody else.”
Other students were making origami, one was crocheting, and some were working in pairs to build a history timeline, starting with the present day and going backwards. They gather the information from their history books. Brazil said she came up with the idea to try to make the subject of history more relevant and interesting for the students. She pointed out that the origami she was working on with a student was a geometry project to help students apply the concepts. “Fun stuff,” said Brazil.
All the students have their own space. The ALC is not set up like a traditional classroom, but consists of several rooms in various configurations. There are currently 28 students and Brazil says they have room for about 30. She said that at times there has been a waiting list. There is an application process that includes an interview.
“Most of these kids really want to be here,” said Brazil. “They want to graduate. They love that it doesn’t feel like a school. It’s a learning space. When they first come here, we make a plan for what they need to do, and we help them stick to it.”
Brazil said the ALC is not about adapting the curriculum. “We’re not changing that, actually; what we’re really doing is adapting teaching and learning methods so they work with students’ learning needs,” said Brazil. “For instance, the origami project is really helpful for kids who are kinesthetic learners, when they try to understand the angle relationships in geometry. Since we have fewer students, we can customize learning experiences a little more. One student who is studying plant systems in an online curriculum is a strong visual learner, so she is making and illustrating a book about plant identification for her final project.”
“It’s way more relaxed here,” said student Gracie Bergman. “It’s a slower pace. You go at the pace you need. They have different styles of learning which I think is helpful.”
Brazil said that she works well with the administration and teachers at the traditional Hamilton High School. She said the principal Ryan Wells and superintendent Tom Korst have been “so supportive.” She said she is constantly networking with the high school teachers.
Support from the community has also been significant, according to Brazil. For example, the ALC received a “Friends of the Hamilton Schools Classroom Mini Grant” to go towards the purchase of a greenhouse. David Evans of Evans Ace Hardware covered the difference as well as providing supplies, plants and seeds. A2Z Personnel also helped purchase plants. The students made fairy gardens using succulents and also made flower baskets as gifts for their parents.
Something else of note is that there are no behavior problems at the ALC. “We don’t have any behavior issues here,” said Brazil. “There’s a very high level of respect here. There’s a lot of collaborative problem solving.”
For Brazil and Tally, the rewards of their work include the satisfaction of making a difference in these young people’s lives.
“At the end of the day, we look at each other and say, can you believe they pay us to do this?”