On paper, Amanda Rettmann’s academic performance once looked poor.
She says she slacked off on her studies after her dad died when she was 15. She moved out of her mother’s house when she was 17 and dropped out of school completely as a senior.
After a year absence, the 19-year-old now is enrolled at Central Medford High School, an alternative school with a highly transient population. Students come and go, responding to outside challenges more pressing than getting a diploma.
Here, on-time graduation is so rare that it pulls the Medford School District’s graduation rate below the state average of 68.4 percent, which already is one of the worst in the nation.
Those are the facts on paper. In person, however, Rettmann is impressive.
On a recent school day, she is rested and ready for four hours of classes, which will be followed by eight hours of work caring for people with brain injuries.
Newly promoted to a managerial position, Rettmann has only three more credits to earn at school before she can graduate on June 9. Then she will decide on college. She’d like to be a nurse.
“Everyone has opinions about alternative schools,” says Central Medford Principal Amy Herbst. “People think of our students as the bad’ kids, even though they are bright and creative with big hearts.”
Herbst acknowledges that she has an uphill battle changing misconceptions, especially when the state Department of Education publishes graduation reports.
She says people throw up their hands and ask her, “Why aren’t you teaching those kids?”
While 80 percent of South Medford High School’s class of 2012 — and 68 percent of North Medford’s — earned a diploma in the traditional four-year span, Central Medford had a graduation rate of 11 percent. Logos Public Charter School, which targets homeschooled K-12 children and at-risk youths, had a 19 percent rate.
Of Central Medford’s 117 seniors, 51 dropped out, five received a GED, one received a modified diploma, and 13 graduated on time. Not counted in the report were the 47 students who needed five years or more to complete math, science, language arts and other requirements.
The Department of Education graduation report shows there has been an increase in the number of Oregon students needing more than the traditional four years to earn a high school diploma.
Hidden in those statistics, says Herbst, are the students’ histories. Her students come to Central already academically deficient or when they are expelled or referred by another high school.
“I can’t say what made our students unsuccessful at other high schools,” says Herbst, who has been here for three years, two as principal. “Many students have home situations that may not be supportive of their educational needs, and it’s left up to them.”
Poverty, homelessness and other issues also can keep them from attending schools for days, weeks, months.
“Our goal is to help students needing individual support to graduate,” she says. “We get them how we get them and we work very hard to help them meet the requirements through a variety of different approaches to learning.”
Once students are 18, there is nothing Herbst or her staff can do legally to keep them in school. So older students such as Rettmann are in class because they want to be.
“Some mature later, and then the idea of a high school diploma clicks in,” says Herbst.
When students return, they resume where they left off, adding fractional credits for the days they attend class and complete the homework.
No one’s credits get erased, yet half the student body are seniors in their fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh year of high school.
Herbst concedes that sometimes students, who are as young as 15 and as old as 21, come to school to feel safe and be fed.
Because of efforts by teachers, pizza reward parties and other incentives, attendance has improved, from 62 percent in 2011 to 70 percent this year.
For three years, the school has been housed in South Medford’s former building on South Oakdale Avenue, a classic 1931 two-story structure with wide hallways that looks straight out of the movie “Grease.”
Teachers ask to work at this alternative school, which was formerly called Medford Opportunity High School.
Once students have caught up on class work, some return to their original school to graduate. Central High became fully accredited in March, which means credits are transferable.
Credits can be earned with project- and proficiency-based assignments, including building tables or learning cooking skills in the culinary-arts kitchen.
On this day, Rettmann is helping family health teacher Tony Reasoner show students how to make breakfast burritos.
Hugo Villa, 17, is carefully chopping spinach on a cutting board. He has enlisted in the Army and ships out in early July, a few weeks after he is scheduled to graduate.
The Job Council has offices inside this old school, and Junior Achievement of Jackson and Josephine counties arranges for business people to talk about careers and workplace expectations. Community volunteers help students prepare for job interviews and serve as judges for senior projects.
Recently, 10 seniors took a college scouting trip to Portland.
On Wednesday, April 24, the school will set up Careers and Gears, a career fair “on steroids” in the gym, says Herbst.
She says her students work with special education students in the campus greenhouse and have empathy when they perform bully prevention skits at elementary schools.
“They can see that a lot of kids are going through what they have gone through,” she says.
If a student disappears, she can only guess the reason.
“Life can get chaotic sometimes,” she says. “We welcome them back.”
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.