On Monday, the Pendleton school board unanimously approved Superintendent Jim Keene's proposal to terminate the district's 16-year tie with the Umatilla-Morrow Education Service District's (ESD) high school alternative education program. Taking its place for the next school year is what the board hopes to be a more cost effective, broader-based program managed by the Union-Baker ESD. As a teacher and advocate for educational alternatives for youth, as well a local taxpayer, I hope that the Union-Baker program radiantly fulfills those expectations.
From my perspective of 15 years experience working with youth through the Umatilla-Morrow ESD program, in addition to 10 years with Pendleton School District, I would like to share with you some of the program's principles that have guided both students and staff through more superintendents, administrators, teachers and teaching assistants that l can easily count. When all the rules and policies and procedures are boiled down, I think the following statements are ones students have found to be the heart of our program:
1. When we interviewed you and enrolled you as a new student, we agreed to a relationship that was based on mutual respect, honesty, and the belief that the past does not equal the future.
2. If you attended Hawthorne Secondary School this year, you were one of more than 125 Pendleton High School students taught by our staff of four. Whether you were the first or the last, we have done our best to make you feel welcome.
3. We believe that you are not bad or irreparably broken. If you have academic or behavioral difficulties, we have worked with you to identify strategies to assist you in becoming successful.
4. When you began your studies and needed to ask for help, you were encouraged to do so. Because our program is individualized, you were not on the same page with anyone else, and no one was held back.
5. Whether you needed 15 seconds or 15 minutes of individualized instruction or attention, you got it.
6. You learned how it felt to be in a community of learners. You had a Personal Education Plan suited to your needs, and you went about the business of setting and achieving goals to complete that plan. In doing so, you learned what it means to take charge of you own education.
7. Whether you completed a test, a unit of study, or turned in an art project, you knew that you had mastered the assignment, because you knew you wouldn't "pass" anything with less than 90 percent accuracy.
8. Whether you had trouble finding a job, daycare, or a friend, our staff was there to listen and provide support and assistance if you needed it.
9. If you attended our program for more than a week, you became familiar with a least one virtue. You learned that, unlike any material possession, no one can steal your virtue, though you are always free to give it away. If we studied "courage," for example, you learned what it means to be courageous, discovered examples in everyday life, and learned that you grow spiritually by practicing virtuous behavior.
10. You learned that our program is a "Hate Free Zone," that diversity is to be honored, and that everyone's perspective potentially enriches us all. You learned it was okay to be yourself.
11. If it wasn't obvious to you already, you learned that education does not begin and end at the school doors. You learned that while you don't earn credit for life experiences like training horses, being a primary caregiver to a chronically ill parent, sticking it out to graduation even though you are a parent, or becoming the first person in your family to earn a high school diploma, everyone's life may be enriched because you know what it means to persevere.
I suppose there are many more guiding principles, but those are enough to give you some flavor of a program that, for many families over many years, has been much more than a classroom through which credit has been retrieved. Known variously as Pendleton Alternative School, Riverside Learning Center, and Hawthorne Secondary School, the program's legacy is one of building relationships, caring for people, and, most of all, supporting learning.
In its 16-year relationship with local school districts, the Umatilla-Morrow ESD staff has developed a program that has been recognized throughout Oregon as a model alternative program, and which has produced some of the state's top administrators and teachers.
I hope that those principles will continue to be part of the daily life of Pendleton's new program, for there is no greater mission than to actively support the academic and personal enrichment of youth.
Brian Purnell of Pendleton is a teacher at Hawthorne Secondary School.