What a great school makes

“But isn’t that school for drug addicts and losers?”

Recent parent response to inquiry about her son attending Creekside High School.

We hear it from the parents, from other teachers and sometimes from the students themselves. For many years, I really didn’t care about the perception, knowing that I was doing a good job, the students were reengaging in learning and happy to have the autonomy that an alternative school setting affords.

This year is different, maybe because I’m seeing a little clearer, maybe because I’m tired of hearing comments by ignorant peers and maybe because I just want a little more respect for my co-teachers, my students and myself.

Creekside is a true alternative school; it is an alternative to SVHS. Founded about 20 years ago where the charter school is now, we moved from there to portables by Natheson Creek (thus the name Creekside), to portables in the high school parking lot (after the flood), to our current location in the L wing on the Sonoma Valley High School campus.

We have shorter classes (50 minutes), very little homework (we encourage students to work in the afternoons which most do), opportunities for independent study, DAAC (Drug and Alcohol Counseling), gang intervention, career counseling, goal setting, RSP support and vocational and career programs.

The three teachers teach all subjects based on the same standards as SVHS. Our graduation requirements are the same. Two of the teachers are currently teacher leaders for the Common Core State Standards. We like innovation and change, we believe in innovation and change. (Search Point Break, Common Core.)

We teach in three-week blocks where there is a driving question for each block. Currently, the question is, “Are you entitled” which students ponder and discuss using a variety of cross-curricular activities. In my Social Responsibility class, students are connecting with other kids in various parts of the world to see how 16-to-18-year-olds live. We are going on a walking fieldtrip to the Lisa Kristine Gallery and studying her work with worldwide slavery as part of the unit.

The final project for the three-week block is a Thanksgiving feast put on by students which has grown to include board members, parents and alumni.

Our students like the innovation. They like teachers who respect them and connect with them. We come up with pathways for their success, SRJC, vocational schools, the military, job training. We pay for the CHSPE or the GED if students want to move on without completing their high school requirements. We work on resumes, career interests, job placement and give credit for work experience. Many students come in with issues but nothing that can’t be overcome. We are small, so if Johnny is angry on a Monday morning, we talk with him before trying to teach him algebra.

I have one simple rule in my classroom, which is to maintain a positive learning environment. That’s it, just let me teach and let the other students learn.

I am not a lecturer but a facilitator. We currently have an on-site administrator available if students break the rules but our model is restorative justice, not punitive enforcement.

After 15 years, I have been lucky to work with some incredible teachers at Creekside; Kaki Shields, Bernie Fleming, Justin Hollander, Emily Brown and Nancy Case-Rico, all devoted, innovative and caring. Currently, teachers Rosemarie Green and Shireen Ellis plus our counselor Tracy Dorrance, administrator Sydney Smith and office manager Teri Hernandez have our machine running as smoothly as it ever has.

Our alumni usually end up working in local businesses or going to the JC and moving out of the area. I see them at Mary’s, The Fairmont, Sonoma Market, Starbucks, and Sonoma Cinemas, where they have become productive members of our community. Some have babies, some go to college, some take longer than others to figure things out but they all eventually grow up.

Success is measured not by test scores but by engagement in life. This is not a quantifiable number and we don’t care, at least I don’t. If I can get a student to stop smoking pot and go to cosmetology school, that’s a success. Take the GED and start working construction – success. Transform from angry at the world to optimistic – success. Approximately 15 students graduate each year from our program. It’s an emotional, intimate graduation with lots of comments like, “I never would have made it without a school that gets me.”

I encourage anyone who believes that we are a school for losers and drug addicts to schedule a visit and see what we are really about.

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Walt Williams teaches algebra, general math, social responsibility, biology and art. But his real subject is engagement.