Park City Learning Center graduates persevere for diplomas
June 23, 2015
Emma Schwallie was struggling. The prospect of graduating seemed distant, and she was unsure, exactly, how anyone ever made it through high school.
Her chances of achieving success in high school were fading.
"I was super afraid to talk to my teachers, and everyone at the high school just seemed like they knew what they were doing, and I did not," she said. "Everyone would get really good grades and be on top of things, and I was really falling behind. I was not doing well at the high school, and I just needed people that knew where I was coming from and were willing to take the time to get to know me and help me."
Then something changed. Schwallie enrolled in the Park City Learning Center, the Park City School District’s alternative high school. There, students at risk of dropping out take core classes such as math, English, science and social studies in an environment designed to give them more one-on-one attention.
For Schwallie, the system worked. After entering the Learning Center as a sophomore, she recently graduated a year early as a junior — and with a 4.0 grade point average. She was one of 18 Class of 2015 graduates who combined to give the Learning Center its first 100-percent graduation rate in recent memory.
"It was a huge thing," said Nicole Stewart, the Learning Center’s principal, of the graduation rate. "Graduation was a really fun place to sit at this year, knowing these kids and their stories."
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Stewart said the key to the Learning Center’s success is getting students into the program during their sophomore years, which gives them enough time to make up lost credits. That also affords teachers and staff ample opportunity to get to know the students and to show them they care.
"It’s a lot more one-on-one attention and small group work," Stewart said. "Kids are just known in this building. We know what’s going on with them, we know their parents, we notice when they’re not here. For a while, you might not want us to know you. Then pretty soon, you start trusting the adults here and realize we’re just here to help you."
Schwallie said the environment in the Learning Center was crucial for her. She said the teachers were the best she had ever had, and for the first time she believed she was capable of being good at school.
"Your personality definitely changes," she said. "It goes from kind of dramatic and still stuck in middle school to being actually serious about what you want to do."
The relationships students form with each other are also important. the end of each year, they become a tight-knit community. This year, Schwallie said, it all began at an overnight camp many of the students participated in for school credit.
"We already knew each other a little, but we really got to know each other," she said. "We all just came together. It was like what you see in, like, a cheesy movie. You’re like, ‘That doesn’t happen,’ but it definitely did."
Schwallie said finding out others are going through similar challenges is helpful.
"That gives you your own sense of motivation," she said.
Stewart said many of the 18 graduates will go on to college this fall. Schwallie is among them. She will head to Snow College and study education.
"The teachers at the Learning Center definitely inspired me," she said.
That she went from an uncertain future to graduating with a clear career path in just two years still has not quite set in.
"It didn’t click that it was even happening for me until (the counselor) asked what name I wanted on my diploma," she said. "Then she talked to my parents about the cap and gown. I just had to go like, ‘Wait. Stop for a second. Is this happening?’"
But it’s not surprising to Stewart. She has seen dozens of kids write similar success stories. In fact, that’s what makes it worth it.
"I’ve told (Schwallie) 100 times: ‘You’re the reason we keep coming to work," Stewart said. "It’s kids like you.’"
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