Nobody gets a free ride. But everybody needs support.

There are many reasons why students attend alternative school. Prime among them is the personal attention and teaching students receive.

Wallowa County Alternative Education School, operated by Building Healthy Families, has its largest class in nine years of operation — 19 students.

The enrollment level is seen as a success since it’s simply not possible for public schools to meet every child’s need.

When a student begins to fall behind, perhaps failing math or English several times, it is almost impossible for a teacher with three to four classes of 25 or more students per day to afford the time that student needs to catch up.

“The largest portion of our students are kids who have fallen behind in academic credits and aren’t on track to graduate within four years,” said Maria Weer, executive director of Building Healthy Families who heads the alternative school program. “I think we’re just able to be flexible (because of the small student population).”

Some students are also dealing with difficulties outside of school and have difficulty coping in a traditional classroom.

“Most of our kids just have a lot going on in their lives outside of school that can make it hard to focus,” said Weer. “We’re able to provide some of the wrap-around support services.”

Those include everything from ride shares to health care to family counseling.

The school is able to operate more as an enriched school experience and extends support beyond graduation.

Wallowa County has realized the importance of having an alternative school for nearly 20 years. The development of the program at Building Healthy Families, however, is different than the original credit recovery program.

“There weren’t visiting speakers, P.E., art, a job skills focus, the attempt to positively connect kids with the community or mentoring,” Weer said. “It wasn’t looking holistically, it was primarily focused on getting them their diploma.”

Sometimes, students feel isolated and crushingly lonely.

“A lot of these kids have struggled to fit in socially or really find their place, and I think that’s one of the things that brings me the most satisfaction,” Weer said. “We have kids that even at our small traditional high schools would not be interacting and connecting. When they’re in these four walls, there are really no social barriers, and everyone has found a place.”

Students may come from any town in the county, and some transit options are available. Other ways of getting to class have also been developed including rides with trusted folks coming to Enterprise for work.

The alternative program tackles student issues with candor and love, two qualities the staff take seriously.

The school does not offer a “free ride.” The academic requirements are rigorous and a student doing “D” work will still bring home a D.

“I think every kid knows we’re not going to hand it to them,” said Weer.

The difference is in the follow-up.

“We are not afraid to ask kids the hard questions and hold them accountable for choices they’re making outside of school,” Weer said. “But it’s in a genuine ‘we care about you and want you to be successful’ way.”

It was seeing that love, caring and compassion to support kids that attracted the five people who work at the school of Building Healthy Family’s 22 employees.

Prevention Coordinator Ron Pickens, formerly of Wallowa County Youth Services, for instance, also serves as a mentor and tutor.

“It’s such a natural fit,” said Weer, “because what we do a lot is small group mentoring and one on one mentoring. He also just has a passion and a heart for working with kids.”

Pickens recalls being the age of the students and although he did fine in public school, he recalls needing a mentor and someone to look up to. So, when he attended the school’s graduation in 2017, things clicked for him.

“I thought, ‘wow, this is incredible.’ I want to be in this classroom. I want to be with these people and with these kiddos,” Pickens. “I really like the atmosphere where all these kids are getting to connect deeper than they might normally and get to connect with us in a very positive way.”

Tashina Schillereff, school based programs coordinator, has been with Building Healthy Families for six years and assists kids who need extra help. Schillereff was an alternative education student herself, she said. She chose it so she could graduate early and could go to work in the real world more quickly.

“It wasn’t like it is now. I like it better here,” she said.

The growth of the school also coincides with an overall growth in student population county-wide.

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