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Parents differ with state report on alternative school
By CHRIS COLLINS
Of the Baker City Herald
Although a Department of Education reviewer gave the Baker Alternative School high marks in most areas, some parents of children who attended the school this year have a different view.
The school district entered into a two-year contract with the Union-Baker Education Service District last summer to provide the alternative education program to Baker students. The district previously had provided its own program.
Under the contract, the 5J district pays the ESD $3,200 per student for the service. The district receives $4,500 per student from the state. The extra money is plugged back into the district's general fund, according to administrators.
John Ritter, a Department of Education youth corrections specialist, reviewed the alternative school program during the last week of classes this spring. He presented the results of his review to the Baker School Board during its June meeting.
Ritter praised the program's curriculum and staff, but was critical of the building at 2021 Washington Ave. that housed the classrooms this year.
"The present facility is too small and has inadequate space," Ritter said in his review.
He recommended that a new site include not only proper classroom space, but breakout areas, a kitchen area, a student break area and a vocational area.
Ritter said the program also should develop staff training to ensure that all staff members follow ESD policy for testing protocol, student behavior/discipline and curriculum.
"The Union-Baker ESD curriculum provides an excellent opportunity for a wide variety of children to achieve success," he told the board.
In response to a question from director Dan Garrick, Ritter said he did not believe the board had any reason to be "extremely concerned" about the program.
"I don't have a perfect eye, but I have a pretty good one," he said of his review of the school.
Some parents critical
Tricia Everson, whose daughter, Kate, graduated from the Baker Alternative School this year, told the school board the program had declined dramatically under the ESD's leadership.
"We had a marvelous program to compare this to," she said. "Every year was better than the year before except this year."
Under the Baker School District, the alternative school was housed upstairs at the YMCA gymnasium at 2020 Church St. The program was reorganized after teacher Lori Daniels resigned in the summer of 2001. She was one of seven longtime employees to accept a voluntary separation package from the school district as part of a cost-saving plan to reduce district expenses.
In August, the district announced plans to contract the program to the ESD. Benny Ruda was hired as the teacher. Under the reorganization, the school's classroom was first established at the Oregon Trail Events Center, property on Pocahontas Road owned by Ruda.
That classroom was closed in October after the city/county building inspector discovered building code violations in the barn that had been converted to a classroom on the property.
Everson said the farm setting was unsafe, unsanitary and exposed the students to "negative" people. A small claims court action against Ruda, filed by students, is pending because of work students allegedly were required to perform at the site, she added.
Everson also was critical of the time students actually spent in class and of what she saw as inappropriate punishment for students.
"More than 50 percent of Kate's schooling this year was done at the dining room table," she said.
Everson added that there was no accountability through the program. No report cards or progress reports were issued and communication with parents was very poor, she said.
Parents took their complaints to the school district and the ESD before finally meeting with the school board June 11.
"These are really great kids," she told the board. "Don't be fooled by the blue hair and the piercings. These are lovely kids who have come from difficult situations."
New location in Haines
Plans are under way to establish the school at Haines next year in three storefronts that formerly housed a grocery store and the Circle H restaurant and lounge, according to Lyle Mann, the ESD's director of professional, vocational and alternative education.
Everson said parents are not in favor of busing their children to Haines and do not see the need to move the program out of Baker City.
"There are buildings all over this community that are empty," she said.
Mann acknowledged that the classroom space that housed the program this year was inadequate, but he said nothing else was available when the district had to move from the Oregon Trail Events Center last fall.
He said busing students to Haines could actually help improve attendance and student management issues because of the distance from Baker City. The ESD routinely buses students in its other alternative school programs throughout the region, he added.
For example, students from Hermiston and Echo are bused to school at Stanfield; Boardman and Ione students attend an alternative school at Irrigon; and students from Ontario, Vale and Adrian are bused to Nyssa for classes.
Mann said the program's late start last summer probably contributed to the some of the concerns noted by Everson. He said the Baker alternative school is one of the first in which the ESD has replaced an existing program, rather than starting its own from the beginning, which also might account for some of the concerns.
In addition to Ruda, the Baker program employs four vocational trainers and Jude Lehner, alternative education coordinator, who serves as a part-time teacher and administrator in the program. Enrollment averaged about 45 students this year in programs for students ages 14 to 21, Mann said. If the enrollment continues to grow, a fifth vocational trainer might be added.
He said the Haines site should be ready by July and the ESD plans an open house for the community during the first part of August.
"I'd encourage people to come and look at our program," he added. "If it is one that doesn't fit in the Baker School District, people just need to let us know. We're sure not pushing our program on anybody."
Mann said the ESD works to help students who can't succeed elsewhere.
"A number of kids we work with do have some serious problems," he said. "A lot of kids come to us because an educational program in a traditional setting doesn't work for them."