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Student populations growing

Students attend a summer school class in July 2018 at Jerome High School.

JEROME — The Jerome School District is preparing to open a standalone alternative high school in the fall to serve at-risk students.

The school district already has an alternative program — it has been in existence for more than 25 years — but it’s not a standalone school and it’s under the umbrella of Jerome High School.

The new alternative school — which doesn’t have a name yet — will be housed in classrooms at the Jerome School District’s administrative office, which is an old middle school building.

Idaho’s alternative schools can accommodate students up to age 21. If any teenagers enroll who are parents, Jerome’s alternative school will be required to provide day care. The school must also provide some type of career/technical education program.

It’s unknown yet how many students will enroll at the alternative school, but it will likely open with about 50 students.

“We see it as growing because there’s a need,” Jerome School District Superintendent Dale Layne said Monday. “It’s just a different opportunity for kids. Just a smaller environment is probably one of the biggest differences.”

Students will take three classes at a time for a shorter duration, instead of seven at a time at Jerome High. Eventually, the alternative school will likely use a mastery-based education model, where students will progress through schoolwork at their own pace.

School officials have met with students at Jerome High who may be interested in the alternative school and passed out about 150 applications. One or two completed forms were turned in the same day.

“That’s just an indication that there’s a need and a real interest,” Layne said.

South-central Idaho is already home to a handful of alternative schools: Magic Valley High School in Twin Falls, Wakapa Academy in Buhl, Silver Creek High School in Hailey, Cassia Junior/Senior High School in Burley and Mt. Harrison Junior/Senior High School in Heyburn.

The state requires prospective students to meet three of the following criteria: has repeated at least one grade, absenteeism higher than 10 percent compared with the previous semester, failed at least one academic subject in the past year, behind on credits toward graduation or grade promotion, attended three or more schools within the last two years, has a pattern of substance-abuse behavior, is pregnant or a parent, an emancipated or unaccompanied youth, a previous dropout, has a serious personal/emotional/medical issue, has a court or agency referral, or demonstrates behavior that’s detrimental to their academic progress.

Currently, the Jerome School District has a very small alternative school and for the most part, classes are online. There used to be one teacher, but the position has been vacant since fall 2018 and the school district hasn’t been able to find anyone to fill it.

In years past, anywhere from a handful to 25 students have been enrolled at a time at the alternative school. Currently, students earn class credits through the program and the goal is to have them return to Jerome High to graduate.

“We were really trying to get kids back to the high school,” Layne said.

Starting this fall, the new alternative school will be a standalone school. Students will be able to earn a diploma and graduate specifically from the alternative school.

To prepare for opening an alternative school, the Jerome School District hired Sean Spagnolo — a math teacher at Magic Valley High — in March as the new school’s principal and he’s in the midst of interviewing candidates for teaching positions.

The school plans to hire three teachers who’ll teach core academic classes such as English and math, and one secretary.

“We will probably end up doing some online courses still,” Layne said, since there will be a limited number of teachers.

Spagnolo — who started his career at Jerome Middle School — has been teaching at Magic Valley High for four years. For the last couple of years, he has also taken on some administrative duties.

“Working with alternative school kids is awesome,” he said. “I wouldn’t go back.”

He said he’s looking at how Jerome’s new alternative school can create change and be an advocate for at-risk students.

The school district also plans to go through the process of getting accreditation for the new school from AdvancED — the same organization Jerome High School already has accreditation through. It will allow students to graduate with a diploma under the alternative school’s name.

There’s also a process to get approval for the school’s operation from the Idaho State Department of Education.

The school district’s first alternative program — also sponsored by Jerome High School — was a night school that started during the 1992-93 school year, Layne said, and it was specifically for teenagers who had a child.

It expanded after that to include other at-risk students. It used to draw students from outside the Jerome School District boundaries, but numbers dwindled as other area school districts opened alternative schools.

The online program began during the 2011-12 school year.

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