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A new journey

Jim McAuley/Daily Herald

Wes Young, 16, works in the library at Polaris High School in Orem, Utah. Polaris is an innovative new school where students are finding success through nontraditional teaching methods.

By CALEB WARNOCK
Daily Herald

OREM, Utah (AP) – Mara Lucero, 17, is determined to graduate.

Her goal of exiting high school with a diploma has been complicated since giving birth to her daughter, Brisa, two and a half years ago.

“My mother could not really take care of her because she is taking care of my two nieces,” Lucero said. “That’s why I decided to come here, because of the day care.”

“Here” is Polaris, an innovative new high school seeing early success with students most at risk of failing to graduate in Alpine School District. Polaris was born this year after more than a year of collaboration among officials trying to find a better way to help students who have fallen behind in earning credits, whether because of pregnancy, family trouble, legal problems, health issues or drug abuse.

Lucero now is on track to graduate with her class this year because of the new, labor-intensive model of education in use here. She is taking algebra, geometry, statistics, pre-engineering, biology and literature alongside her favorite class, ceramics. And instead of fretting about graduating, she is making plans for her future.

“I want to study to be a nurse,” she said. “I like to help other people.”

She isn’t the only Polaris success story. Statistical data is likely to indicate that more than twice as many credits have been earned by at-risk students at Polaris since school started compared with the same period last year, said Principal Lori Thorn, who helped design Polaris.

Students come here on the recommendation of their school counselors after developing a graduation plan with parents, district spokeswoman Rhonda Bromley said.

“They needed to make up more credits than they could get at their regular schools,” Thorn said. “Here, they start to see that it is possible to graduate.”

For more than 200 students, Polaris High has replaced makeup packets of homework with a tailor-made classroom experience. Schedules are hand-selected by counselors. Students get grades every four weeks, earning one-eighth of a credit a month per class, which gives them a sense of accomplishment and hope as they watch their progress, said Thorn and teacher Allison Mower.

Once overwhelmed and on the brink of giving up, students this year “are on track now,” said Mower, who teaches English and has obvious enthusiasm for the Polaris experiment.

The formula is working because classes are half as long, with twice as many a day, which works well for students who don’t have long attention spans, she said. Mower said she is able to form individual relationships with her students, to show them that she cares not only about their lives but about their progress and future. They feel hope that they can graduate.

The in-school day care gives the 20 young mothers enrolled here a chance they might not otherwise have. And the school focuses on hands-on classes when possible – robotics, stained-glass making, broadcast television.

There also are special so-called cohort classes – think of them as normal classes that have been sped up. Math classes build on each other, and so must be taken in order. But sometimes there is not time for years of consecutive classes. Cohort classes are taught over two class periods in half the time, so a 101 class and a 102 class can be taught in one year. At Polaris, there is a triple-cohort class, covering three years of math. It is the only class of its kind in the district.

Some students are reluctant at first, but many, like Lucero, have learned to love the experience.

And students seem to make more progress because, unlike doing packets on their own, they must attend Polaris every day, and the campus is closed, meaning students must be in classes and cannot leave for lunch, Thorn said. Attendance is one of the biggest issues with at-risk students, but at Polaris, students know their absence will be noticed and questioned.

“They say, ‘I have to come because my teacher expects me to be there,’” Mower said. “And it’s easier to remember the bigger goal here because every month they are this much closer to graduation.”

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