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Central School proving successful for students

| September 29, 2004 12:00 AM

By Paul Boring, Western News Reporter

The success of the Libby Central School can be best observed in the personal growth of its students and the palpable changes that have occurred in their lives as a result of the second chance offered by the alternative school.

³To see the growth in the kids is amazing,² said John Kratofil, district special services director. ³We¹re trying to give them as much a chance as we can. It¹s a great deal for everyone.²

In the first five years of operation, the Central School has watched 169 students attend, with 42 kids graduating. What began as a nebulous vision among school administrators has evolved into a quality educational facility.

³We knew there was a need for it,² Kratofil said. ³I was an assistant principal at the high school for all kinds of years and I would have given my left arm to have another alternative for some of the kids who just weren¹t making it in the traditional setting there. We knew we needed it, but we just didn¹t know what we wanted to do.²

Superintendent Kirby Maki gave form to the vision, lobbying hard for the plan and becoming a strong proponent of the alternative school concept.

³You need somebody to start the ball rolling and Kirby was the guy,² Kratofil said. ³I give all the credit to Mr. Maki for going with it. That¹s what we needed.²

Once the district trustees pledged their collective support for the project, the next step was to find a location for the school.

³We brainstormed all kinds of crazy things,² Kratofil said. ³Upstairs at the administration building was the district¹s junk room. Everything that you didn¹t want to throw away and you thought you¹d use someday was up there. Kirby said let¹s do it here.²

The decision to move students into the Central Administrative Building was initially met with trepidation from the office workers. As time elapsed and district employees witnessed firsthand a peaceful coexistence with the vitality-rich students, any misconceptions were quickly dispelled.

³They complement the building,² Kratofil said.

Without the right group of instructors, the alternative school would not have worked in Libby. Enter Todd Berget, Laura McCrohan, Dean Herreid, and paraprofessional Marie Perez.

³You ask any kid who attends the school or even a past graduate and ask them why they like the Central School or what¹s so good about it, invariably they¹re going to tell you it¹s the teachers,² Kratofil said. ³They immerse themselves. They care so much.²

Berget and McCrohan, formerly Libby High School teachers, applied for the positions at the new school. Kratofil immediately saw the future of the Central School in the two applicants.

³Kirby and I decided first that the key to the school was going to be the teachers,² Kratofil said. ³I had taught with Todd and Laura at the high school, so I knew them as individuals who were caring and very talented teachers.²

Dean Herreid also came aboard, bringing with him experience from an alternative school-like environment he taught in years prior to the Central School opening. Libby students were now being taught by three LHS graduates.

³That¹s a very unique thing, that all of us attended Libby High School,² Berget said. ³We love the community and that¹s why we stay here.²

Berget and McCrohan cover academics, while Herreid oversees technology. Perez works with younger students and assists with independent study. The district pays for most of the instructors¹ salaries through Title 1 funds.

³It¹s a great investment,² Kratofil said.

Berget and McCrohan observed alternative schools in western Montana and in Idaho before the first school year began. The instructors appropriated aspects of each of the schools to structure the Central School.

³We took the best of what we could find and we hammered it and molded it to work for us,² Berget said. ³We¹re always changing something. If something¹s not working, we¹re going to change it.²

³Laura is the glue that holds us all together,² he added. ³She has so much compassion for the kids and when you just get frustrated with something, she brings you right back down. She sees the big picture. She is one of the most important parts of this school. We all complement each other.²

Education at the Central School consists of conventional academics, instructor malleability, and lessons in real life. Learning is a two-part process that entails retaining information and then applying the knowledge. At the Central School, students are given the theory and the opportunity for application.

³Kids are here for a variety of reasons,² Kratofil said. ³They know that this is probably their last chance. Here, the kids are all individualized, they¹re on their own, so to speak. They have a course determined for them, but they have somebody in there to help them every step of the way.²

High school does not always agree with every student. At the Central School, many of the kids blossom once they are placed in a smaller classroom environment.

³Here, with a smaller crowd, the kids band together pretty dang well,² Kratofil said. ³They¹re proud of the school and their place in it.²

If a student ³washes out,² or is suspended, it is not uncommon for the student to attempt returning to school before the suspension has been served.

³The hardest part is keeping them away,² Kratofil said. ³They want to come back.²

³The kids develop strong relationships,² Berget said. ³They become a family, they really do. They¹ll call other kids that didn¹t show up that day or go and get them. They look out for each other. If someone¹s about to wash out, they do what they can.²

Berget supplements education with extensive community service, often incorporating art, his true passion, into the project. Ornate and colorful murals painted by students can be found all over Libby.

³We do little things in the community and the kids start developing this ownership,² he said. ³They know that they may not live here the rest of their life, but right now they are part of Libby. There¹s a pride in being part of the community. That¹s fun to see.²

Central School students must meet the same academic and age requirements as Libby High School students. For a student to attend the school, Maki and the high school administrators must sign off on the transfer.

³Kids think it¹s easy and then they come down here and find out,² Berget said. ³We have kids that only needed six credits to graduate last year. They were a half credit shy, so they¹re back here this year. Some people think we give credits away free. That¹s not the case at all. They¹re working hard.²

Instructors at the alternative school stress academics, but also push communication skills and help students develop attributes needed for life outside the self-contained educational microcosm.

³Aside from reading and math and the other subjects, communication skills are probably the most important thing we can teach here, Berget said. ³We¹re teaching job skills and the most vital thing when you get out is communication. The kids understand it. They look at it as real life and it¹s not that hard to teach them. A lot of time it¹s planting seeds and hoping something grows that will change their life in a positive way.²

Berget is loath to sugar coat the situation at the Central School. The bottom line is that the students had difficulty adapting to conventional high school life. The charge for each instructor is to meet each young adult wherever they happen to be in their lives.

³It¹s different strokes for different folks,² Berget said. ³It¹s not fair down here. Each student is different and we teach them differently. We work with every student unless they start conflicting with other students and adversely affecting the progress of other students.²

Instructors at the Central School do a one-year follow-up on all students who graduate or leave the school prematurely. In many cases, the future success of each respective student is not immediately quantifiable.

³There are success stories, but it doesn¹t always work that way,² Berget said. ³If we plant a couple of seeds and they grow, then there are success stories that we may not know about.²

Now in its sixth year, the Central School has evolved to the point where teachers are able to keep their focus on enhancing the education and the student experience. Kratofil acknowledged that school systems are fallible, but emphasized the importance of giving the kids an opportunity to succeed.

³We¹ve had as many as 50 kids upstairs,² he said. ³How many of those kids would not be in school if we didn¹t have this? We don¹t know, but even if we say half of them, that is substantial.²