BUHL — At-risk students in Buhl will soon have access to an alternative school.
The Buhl School District plans to open a new high school, Wakapa Academy, in September. The goal is to eventually take in students in surrounding Magic Valley west end communities such as Castleford, Hagerman, Filer and Wendell.
The school aims to reach teenagers who are at risk of dropping out or need another option to help them be successful in school. It’s a population that may be under-served.
“There isn’t anything on the west end,” said Ron Anthony, superintendent of the Buhl School District. “We’ve struggled.”
The new school’s name, Wakapa, is a word with American Indian origins that means “to excel.” It also used to be the name of Buhl High School’s yearbook.
The school will be housed in the Boys & Girls Club’s Buhl building.
The school district plans to spend about $150,000 from its general fund for initial school start-up costs. Once the school is up and running, it will receive state funding similar to other Idaho public alternative schools.
A school counselor is working to identify students who could attend the new school, Anthony said.
So far, they’ve identified five teenagers who should have graduated with the class of 2017, but didn’t and are only a few class credits shy of getting to the finish line.
The idea for an alternative school in Buhl isn’t anything new. School district officials have looked into the possibility for at least four years as a way to address the high school dropout rate.
Typically, 20 students from each grade level are lost from freshman year to graduation, Anthony said. “That’s way too many.”
Buhl’s graduation rate was nearly 78 percent for the 2015-16 school year, according to the Idaho Department of Education. That’s the latest data available, which the state released in February.
Wakapa Academy will provide an option for “kids who need something different,” Anthony said, such as if their home life or other responsibilities make it too difficult to attend a traditional high school.
Buhl has two or three students each year who attend Magic Valley High School, an alternative high school in Twin Falls.
But the distance to Twin Falls is an obstacle, Anthony said, and there isn’t school busing provided between the two communities.
The new Buhl school won’t have an impact on the Twin Falls School District, district spokeswoman Eva Craner wrote in an email to the Times-News.
Very few students from Buhl enroll at Magic Valley High, she wrote, and any opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Magic Valley is a win.
During a Buhl school board retreat last year, a goal was to look into creating an alternative school. Then-Buhl High principal Ryan Bowman and Anthony visited Shoshone’s alternative school, High Desert High School, and learned how it and others across Idaho work.
They started a planning process in February to create Buhl’s own alternative school. They filled out an alternative-schools application in April and turned it into the state two weeks ago — well before the Thursday deadline.
The Idaho Department of Education has received the application, spokesman Jeff Church told the Times-News, and it should be reviewed and finalized by the end of next week.
Maggi Fortner, currently a Magic Valley High teacher, will be the head teacher and a high school vice principal in charge of Wakapa Academy. She’ll start in her new role July 31.
“We’re going to use a lot of our online coursework this first year,” Anthony said. That could include PLATO, an online credit recovery program.
Fortner is a certified English teacher, so she could teach some of the English coursework, Anthony said.
Another option for alternative school students could be to take agriculture classes at Buhl High or automotive classes through ARTEC Regional Professional Technical Charter School.
Buhl school officials are initially aiming to enroll about 20 students for the upcoming school year. And the district also plans to hire a paraprofessional for the school.
The long-range vision is to have 50 students. Eventually, the district may look into other building options, such as modular classrooms, moving into an existing facility or building a new one.