For the week of February 3, 1999  thru February 9, 1999  

Alternative school seniors ace ACT, earn college admission

Express Staff Writer

College-bound Silver Creek Alternative School students Kellen Williams and Caleb Hemenover take a moment from their day for a picture. (Express photo by Willy Cook)

Two local high school seniors, Caleb Hemenover and Kellen Williams, received letters of acceptance from the University of Idaho in mid January.

That’s not necessarily big news. What is news is that these students were once labeled "at risk" and will be graduating from Hailey’s Silver Creek Alternative School this spring.

Even more extraordinary is how well these two students performed on the ACT college board test. Caleb scored in the 97th percentile, and Kellen in the 81st percentile, scores that immediately caught the attention of admissions officers at the University of Idaho, and impressed Silver Creek’s director Barge Levy.

"I’d like to get several bachelor’s degrees," Kellen said with undeniable conviction, still gripping his letter from the university. "I plan to have a college career going for about seven years."

Caleb said he is interested in studying the sciences. He is investigating Reed College in Oregon and Evergreen State College in Washington state.

Their exceptional scores, it must be said, impressed Levy, but they did not surprise him.

It is possible that Levy knows the 32 students enrolled at Silver Creek better than any other teacher who has worked with them. And one thing he will assure you about his students is that "at risk" does not mean destined to fail. In fact, "at risk" often means, as it certainly does with Kellen and Caleb, gifted.

Levy said he sees this gifted nature emerging in Silver Creek students all the time.

"The students here just got bored in school before," Levy said. "They were turned off somehow. It’s all about firing their interest."

You can’t be in Levy’s presence for too long at Silver Creek without him exclaiming, to no one in particular, "These kids are incredible."

Indeed, the transformation that Levy is facilitating among Silver Creek students is incredible.

Students like Caleb and Kellen come to Silver Creek after not finding a good fit with traditional schools. Some students have been expelled; others have dropped out. They all arrive at Silver Creek with a few learning-skill deficiencies, with low self esteem, and with the misperception that school isn’t fun or a place for them.

Levy and fellow teacher Joan Melton work tirelessly to correct that misperception. And their labor seems to be paying off.

Visit Silver Creek on a typical morning before classes and you will find students bouncing into the lobby, greeting each other with hugs, dancing even. More surprisingly, every student seems to gravitate to Levy or Melton to say good morning. It is as if they are all at home.

This family-like revelry would be a peculiar sight at any high school, let alone at a school for so-called "at risk" students.

It may be the unique curriculum at Silver Creek that is striking a chord with students. Instead of attending several classes a day, Levy and Melton teach block plans, which focus on one subject for five hours a day for three weeks. Students take classes in several disciplines, such as math, science, economics, psychology, and publishing.

"It’s nice to be able to focus on just one thing," said Kellen of the block plan. "I think it’s a lot better way to learn."

Levy integrates computers as much as possible to the curricula, something he says stimulates learning and makes the learning process less daunting for students.

"You can boost their skills better with computers," Levy said.

This week, Levy is taking a class of 16 through an advanced computer-programming block. The program, which Levy wrote, will introduce a controlled experiment assessing the frequency of random numbers generated by computers and humans.

What the students may not know is that, within this block, they are not only acquiring useful programming skills, but some dreaded algebraic skills.

In all aspects of the curriculum and especially with the emphasis on computer learning, Levy hopes to graduate students with "some heavy, marketable skills."

The hallmark of Silver Creek’s educational approach may be that Levy and Melton do not spoon-feed these skills—they cajole their students to discover the skills on their own.

That requires a lot of individualized attention and a lot of passion.

Based on the camaraderie, the eagerness, and the diligence among Silver Creek students, it seems that it is the passion of the two teachers, more than anything else, that is resonating and making a difference with the kids.

"The school I came from before was old-fashioned," said Caleb. "Teachers just came and taught and left."


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