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Medford alternative school attendance up

MEDFORD — For senior Cheyeanne Munoz, science class last week at Medford Opportunity High School involved standing on the banks of Bear Creek and teaching elementary school students about ecology, riparian areas and the life cycles of salmon.

She was offered a place at the alternative school on Earhart Street in the Medford School District after habitually skipping classes as a student at North Medford High School.

She enrolled last year in the alternative school's Job Council program, which combines curriculum on state academic standards with community service, including providing instruction to elementary pupils for the Salmon Watch environmental education program at Medford's Jefferson Nature Center.

"Now I come to school every day just because I like it," Munoz said. "I fell in love with this school because it's like a family. I am excited to get up and go to school and go on all the field trips."

Incorporating programs such as the Job Council and offering small class sizes have added more appeal to Medford Opportunity and helped to begin squashing its reputation as purgatory for the expelled and the truant.

"The change is more students are wanting to go to the school rather than be placed there," said Principal Guy Tutland. "Right now we have large numbers of students who have chosen to stay here because they prefer it. We have parents and students on a waiting list because we don't have room for them. The school is working for so many kids. Word is getting out that there is (another) option for kids."

While the school continues to serve as a rescue system for expelled and truant students, more students such as Munoz simply prefer the school over traditional models such as North Medford and South Medford high schools.

Attendance has increased this year from about 69 percent last fall to about 75 percent this fall, and enrollment, at 210 pupils, is higher than last year, Tutland said.

The growing demand has prompted school officials to take the next step in the school's evolution by seeking accreditation through the Northwest Accreditation of Schools and Colleges as well as a larger location to accommodate more students and programs, which include counseling and drug and alcohol treatment.

Accreditation would allow the school's credits to be transferable to schools outside the Medford district and increase Medford Opportunity's legitimacy as a stand-alone campus, said Doug Jantzi, Medford schools secondary education director. Provisional accreditation could be awarded as soon as November, with full accreditation expected in the 2010-11 school year.

Officials are eyeing South Medford High School on Oakdale Avenue as a possible location for the alternative school. That campus will be vacated next year when construction wraps up on a new school at Columbus and Cunningham avenues.

Munoz said she felt "invisible" among the nearly 1,900-member student body at North Medford. At Medford Opportunity, she said she knows everyone.

"It was harder to get help from teachers because the classes were so big," Munoz said of North Medford.

While Medford Opportunity's small size attracts students who felt lost in the masses at larger high schools, the school has limited choices for classes. There are no second languages offered, for example, but students may take such classes at North Medford or South Medford. Students also can take online courses if they need more flexibility in their schedule or to catch up on credits in order to graduate on time.

"This gives them hope and a reason to come to school because there's actually a chance they might catch up, which is highly motivating to our kids," Tutland said.

Despite the strides the school has made, the campus' dropout rate remains high. About 155 out of 430 over the course of last school year dropped out, according to district figures. But officials said students who enroll in Rogue Community College's general equivalency diploma program are included in the dropout figure, as are students who transfer without asking for a transcript.

"We serve a very fluid population that is constantly enrolling and withdrawing to go back to their old high school," Tutland said. "Some just come here to get back on track.

"Some students only remain at Medford Opportunity long enough to make up credits, then return to North or South."

But the school has tried to give students a sense of ownership of the campus by involving them in leadership and community service in the Job Council program. The school also has increased its focus on postsecondary education by taking students on tours of Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University.

Mark Babbini, a senior, said while he was a student at North Medford he was told he wouldn't be able to graduate on time. After enrolling at Medford Opportunity, he was able to make up missing credits and now is expected to graduate on time. He wants to go to culinary school after graduation.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

From left, Mark Babbini, Cheyeanne Munoz and Emily White say that Medford Opportunity High School, with Job Council programs and smaller class sizes, has more to offer them than mainstream schools. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Jim Craven