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Discovery offers an alternative path to success

Ian Kay is a student teachers love bragging about.

“He’s a genius,” gushes Lydia Grimm. “He has maintained a 4.0 grade-point average all along, even while taking classes like Japanese and philosophy. He’s very unique, and despite lots of obstacles, he’s truly a success story.”

Not content with just high school courses, Grimm said Kay — whose given name is Khristian — will also have several college credits under his belt when he graduates this month since he participated in Olympic College’s Running Start program, which allows students to apply tuition-free courses toward both a diploma and a degree.

But Kay will not be one of the 600-odd South Kitsap High School students grabbing their diplomas at the Tacoma Dome Sunday.

He will join 58 others for a decidedly smaller, but no less proud, ceremony for Discovery Alternative High.

To Grimm and her fellow teachers at Discovery, Kay is just one of the reasons why alternative schools are so important.

“Some of these kids are square pegs in a round hole,” said teacher Corey Millard. “The perception is that these kids are slackers, but they’re not. Most of them are trying to get their act together. They’ve all hit bottom, and they’re fortunate to have a place to go to.”

Discovery offers another option — and sometimes the last chance — to students who still strive to graduate, but for whatever reason couldn’t succeed with the traditional high school structure.

“They just didn’t fit in,” said Grimm, adding that all those students won’t automatically fit in at Discovery, either.

“We interview kids before they come here because we want to make sure they’re ready to commit,” she explained. “Sometimes they aren’t.”

“We believe the more self-motivated the kids are, the better,” Millard said, explaining that after the teachers interview students, they discuss their impressions of each one. “Some students aren’t the right fit, and sometimes it’s not the right time for them. We have lots of makes and models here, and we try and avoid as many collisions as we can.”

Not every problem can be solved, the teachers said, but the individualized attention and close relationships between Discovery teachers and their students can work wonders.

“Unlike regular school, where the teacher asks ‘Did you get your work done?’ first, we ask, ‘How are you?’ ” he said. “As subtle as that is, it makes a difference. As long as they know you care, they’ll do more work than you can imagine.”

There is a limit to how far a teacher’s intervention can take a student, however. At some point, Millard said, every student must take charge of their own success.

“Motivation comes from the inside, not the outside,” he said. “Change won’t happen over night, because a lot of times it’s a matter of maturation. And when it does click, you can’t put your finger on exactly what happens, but it’s fascinating.”

The chance for a stronger bond with her students is what drew her to Discovery five years ago, Grimm said.

“I taught at (South Kitsap High) for 25 years, and I loved it,” she said. “But I simply wanted to teach in that small-school environment. I wanted to know all the kids.”

With only 170 kids and classes that top out at 25, Discovery offered Grimm a chance to pay more attention to those kids who really needed extra help.

“They’re a lot easier to identify when you don’t have 38 faces in your classroom,” she said. “I think that’s the key to success for these students. It takes a while, but once they see that we’re not going to kick them out and they start trusting us, they start to take bigger risks and working harder.”

But sometimes even the more informal structure at Discovery doesn’t work for all students. So two years ago, Grimm approached Principal Pat Oster about providing still another option for students — help earning their GED, or General Equivalency Development.

Typically, school districts discourage students from earning their GED because the perception is that it is not as good as earning a diploma, Grimm said.

“Most people would say a high school diploma is superior to a GED, especially for getting a job,” she said. “I’ve had people say that if they had a choice between two candidates, one with a diploma and one with a GED, they would choose the diploma. But I’ve also heard the opposite.”

The perception of the GED is improving, however, Grimm said.

“The GED test has been revamped, and reflects the higher standards being implemented in education,” she said. “There is a writing segment of the test now, and it is much more equivalent. A lot of these kids’ parents remember when the test was pretty much at the eighth-grade level, but it’s a lot different now.”

Along with an essay, the GED includes four other parts students must pass: reading, math, science and social studies. Students don’t take the test at Discovery, but Grimm and other teachers help prepare them.

Taking turns, each teacher runs one of the four-hour evening sessions. The classes are not formally structured, but self-paced, allowing students to drop in and receive only the help they need, whether with one subject or all of them.

“Some students come in and take the test right away, and some are ready in a couple of weeks,” Grimm said. “But some students have been here working since November.”

Once they’re ready, Grimm said, the students pay the $50 fee and make an appointment to take the test, which most take at Olympic College. This year, Grimm said,10 students have already passed the exam, and several more are just one or two sections away from earning their GED.

“I’m so happy that the district agreed to offer this program,” Grimm said, explaining that the classes are funded by the district. “Instead of closing the door on these kids, we offer them another chance.”

Typically, kids who come to the GED program have been out of school for many years and have no chance of graduating before the cutoff age of 21.

“Once you turn 21, the state will not pay for your high school education,” Grimm said. “So this pretty much their only option. You can be 60 years and get your GED.”

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