Students with Winlock's APOLO alternative learning program work from their computers during class hours on Friday. The online-based program seeks to help students meet graduation requirements they may not otherwise be able to in a conventional classroom setting.
The Winlock School District says they are concerned about the public's perception of students in their APOLO alternative learning program, and are hoping to reach out to the community to benefit both residents and the students themselves.
Begun in 1996 as a chance for students low on graduation credits to make up their work, APOLO, short for Alternative Place of Learning Opportunities, has been the subject of scorn from residents who characterize the students as those most likely to get in trouble or cause problems.
But if you are able to drop by during their hours of instruction, you will not find a rowdy classroom of uncontrollable teens. You will more than likely find a couple dozen students studying quietly at their computers in pursuit of a high school diploma.
Sure, you may hear side conversations or the music of Hollywood Undead streaming from a pair of headphones, but instructor Von Moseley says, as long as the students are completing their required hours of classwork, she doesn't necessarily mind.
"I'm a heart person, not a numbers person," said Moseley in regard her to her approach to students, stating she hopes area residents are able to understand there is a lot more to APOLO than what may be initially perceived. "They're kids that are facing all kids of challenges and they are persisting in their education in the midst of these challenges...It's a normal reaction of society to go, 'They're different.'"
In an effort to show the community just who attends the APOLO program, Winlock Miller Elementary School Principal Boyd Calder, who administrates APOLO, took a group of students and their supporters to speak with the Winlock City Council during the council's Oct. 24 meeting.
"I've been working with at-risk youth for quite a while," said Calder, describing his work with the Centralia School District prior to filling the role of principal in Winlock earlier this year. "They are young men and women who are not throw-aways...They're human beings. They're not perfect, they're not without issues, but they're worth it."
In the classroom, Moseley said her students do present learning challenges because of different emotional and personal struggles, and said there does not seem to be any specific thread common to all of them.
Some come from families that have had to move around a lot and not all of their high school credits have transferred with them. Some come from families with financial hardships and, even though they are students, they are also working on top of classes to help support their family. Some are teen parents, some come from abusive homes, some are primary caregivers for a relative, some have grown up in the midst of drug use.
The variety of students is a reflection of the variety of challenges they are faced with, described Moseley, who said this further reinforces why students in the program should not all be painted with the same brush.
"They go to an alternative school because it's an alternative," continued Calder to the council, stating he is currently attempting to connect more community leaders directly with the students through service project opportunities as well as guest speaking engagements. "Get to know these youngsters. Be a guest speaker. Be a mentor. Be a tutor. Get to know these kids."
That night, council members had an opportunity to themselves meet some students from the program. A handful spoke before officials to share part of why they are in APOLO and how it has impacted their lives.
Student Brandon Wagner said he found himself behind on credits after being unable to complete a separate military program and then spent time out of state, and said the help from instructors to get him back on track has been so effective, "it's ridiculous."
Student Sara Brown said the teachers have been able to provide a great deal of personal support and said she is passing classes she would not have been able to otherwise, as well as finding an opportunity to volunteer as a teaching assistant at the special education preschool directly next to APOLO.
Student Steven Dodds said he was having trouble in a conventional school setting because of his dyslexia and said APOLO has improved his chances of passing classes because he is able to set his own learning schedule rather than try and keep up with other students or an instructor's curriculum.
"The work there is easier because you can do it at your own pace," he said, echoing what many other students have stated is the biggest different for them in the program.
Setting a student's own pace is possible at APOLO through Edgenuity, an online-based teaching software using graphic-oriented instruction and testing in subjects supporting graduation requirements.
The program is set up so, if a student is having trouble with math and they want to get those requirements out of the way, they can focus exclusively on math until it is time to move on. Or, if they have found themselves really enjoying an elective such as Spanish, they can spend more time on that subject than they may have been able to in a regular classroom.
Moseley said, because of Edgenuity, students can even study from home if they have internet access, adding this becomes particularly convenient for teens who find themselves unable to be away from a dependent relative or in circumstances such as maternity leave.
Of the many things APOLO is able to offer, Moseley said the program does come with some inherent disadvantages, such as students being given secondary priority for some extra-curricular programs at the high school and middle school, limited access to student transportation as some participants reside outside of the Winlock School District, and an inability to organize some programs for APOLO students if they are not also made available to the general student population.
Moseley said many of these challenges come from state policies being crafted in the interest of, but without understanding of, alternative learning programs, but she said she continues to be encouraged by how APOLO is expanding and impacting its students.
"Overall, I'm really pleased with how the program is growing," she said, stating, of her 32 students this year, around 70 percent are expected to eventually receive a high school diploma.
These days APOLO is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. during school days with students required to complete at least three hours per day at their discretion. Moseley said the morning hours tend to be the busiest as students can take advantage of the free breakfast and lunch being provided by the district.
If you would like to become involved with the APOLO program, as tutor, mentor, guest speaker or community supporter, Calder encourages residents to contact his office at (360) 785-3516.