A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ALTERNATIVE HIGH SCHOOL IN GREAT FALLS
by Dave Blaquiere (retired), Dick Hurd (retired), and Nancy Dutchak (current staff member). Additional information added periodically by current staff.
The first Alternative High School in Great Falls opened in the fall of 1969 in the basement of a Lutheran Church. It was a program for pregnant or parenting teen-aged girls who were not allowed to attend either local public high school. A second program, called The Learning Center, opened in January of 1973 and offered approximately 30 students a different path to earning a high school diploma. It was located in the old St. Thomas Orphanage building. Through their separate journies of evolution, both programs found themselves housed at Largent, a former elementary school, starting in the fall of 1979. The Adult Basic Education Program was housed there at the same time.
After sharing space and sharing teachers for a number of years, the two programs were merged in 1984 with one administrator and a shared teaching staff of seven teachers plus five full-time support staff. It was through this merger that the concept of an Alternative High School was born, and thus began the school district’s long-term commitment to the idea and practices of alternative education. The Human Growth Center (later renamed the Young Parent’s Education Center), which had provided child care for students who were attending the Alternative High School, stayed with the new, enlarged program, and has continued to offer pregnant or parenting students a support system to help them complete high school.
The enrollment at this time (1984) was about 60-90 students. Most students who applied for admittance had been exited (or had exited on their own) from one of the traditional high schools for lack of attendance and/or disciplinary reasons or they were pregnant/parenting teens. At Largent they were given a second (and usually last) chance at earning a high school diploma. The classes were traditional teacher-led classes with traditional standards for completion of semester requirements within the calendar semester. New students could only enter at the beginning of a quarter. If a student quit or was kicked out at any time before the quarter ended or was not passing the class at the end of the quarter, they would receive no credit for that class and would have to start all over again at the beginning of the next quarter. Quarters would often start with 15-25 students in each class and end with 8-15 students.
This arrangement was not very successful for many of the students who enrolled at the Alternative High School, so in about 1990 dramatic changes started to take place. The concepts of independent study, continuous progress, and open entry started to be developed and were slowly implemented into the program. Students continued to follow a set class schedule for the day, but independent study packets were developed allowing students to work independently of other students in the same class. Students could enter (or exit) the program at any time during the semester without being penalized. The semester calendar became secondary to the satisfactory completion of the required course work. Students were able to work independently (with the teacher’s help when needed) and at their own pace (within certain predetermined time guidelines) until the semester’s worth of work was completed with a 70% minimum mastery level. If a student exited the program before the end of the semester and returned later, they would start where they had left off, not at the beginning of the course. A system of productivity probation was developed and inserted into the program to assure that students were continuously progressing toward predetermined completion times. Syllabi and independent study packets were worked on and improved as time allowed, and teachers were often given release time to work on these items.
As student enrollment at the Alternative High School continued to grow to about 125 students (partly because the program began to admit 14 and 15-year-old freshmen), the Largent facility became overcrowded. After much discussion about possible solutions to the overcrowding, it was decided to move the alternative programs to Skyline School, which had first been an elementary school, and then had housed the special education students. The move was made in 1995 and the name of the school was changed to Skyline Alternative Center. Maximum enrollment was set at 230 students (for the high school—no limit was set for adult basic education) and staff numbers were increased to accommodate the additional student numbers. Student applications for enrollment remained high and it wasn’t long before we were once again putting students on a waiting list. To alleviate this situation, more staff was added. Over the last few years we have increased our staff to 14 teachers, 1 counselors, and 10 support personnel to accommodate a maximum enrollment of 250 students. Our student body includes a number of students who are choosing to come to the Alternative High School because they want to work at their own pace or because the traditional model isn’t working well for them for some reason, many times being a health related reason.
In the fall of 2000 we looked at adding another dimension to our model based on what we had seen being used at a couple of schools in Canada. This “new” model is student-centered and focuses on students taking control of their own education. With this model, the students have an individualized, flexible schedule rather the uniform class schedule that they used to have. The students fill out a planner at the beginning of each day and determine for themselves what they want to study and work on each day and for how long a time. Teacher advisors monitor and guide an assigned group of students and help them to stay focused on daily goals of completing a certain amount of work as well as the long-term goal of eventually earning a high-school diploma. Teachers also take on the role of “teacher expert” for a specific area of study and are assigned time in learning centers where students can go to get help when they need it. In addition to this, teachers are required to write and update learning guides for their courses, keep student files current, present seminars as needed, and perform other assigned duties. The schools in Canada that we looked at talked about the five pillars of their model (the Trump model), which included supported self-directed learning (independent study), continuous progress (along with open entry/open exit), differentiated staffing, individualized scheduling, and teacher advisors. We already had the first three of these pillars in place, so it was not a huge leap to add the last two pillars to implement the “new” model.
In the fall of 2007 we moved into the Paris Gibson Building, which originally was Central Catholic High School, and then for many years was Paris Gibson Middle School. This has proven to be a good move as it places us in a more central location in the city and it gives us more room to expand. In the fall of 2009, the Adult Education program moved to the MSU-COT building. We will continue to tweak and revise our program as necessary to accommodate the ever-changing needs of our students and to create the very best educational experience that is possible.
In 2016 voters in Great Falls passed a Bond for over 98 million dollars. Paris received a new roof, an elevator, new windows in the Hub and Cafeteria and system upgrades. These upgrades will allow Paris to continue to serve the 270+ students that attend. Also in in 2016 an Immersion School was added to the Paris Program. Thirty-three Native American Students, who struggled in school, joined together to create the Immersion School. Jordann Lankford was selected as the instructor. All classes are taught through a cultural lens.