Worries brew about what will happen to at-risk students at Gresham High

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Options students meet one class period each day for goal setting, habit breaking and extra support. The family-like atmosphere helps students to succeed in their traditional Gresham High classes.

A tearful mother described her daughter's transformation from a struggling high school freshmen to an exemplar citizen.

Beth Wilson was skipping classes and failing miserably at Gresham High School when a counselor suggested she join a program for at-risk students in 1991.

In Options Alternative Program, she met her future husband, Darin. She learned about commitment, follow through, goal-setting and relationships.

Pregnant, she graduated right on time with her class in 1994, something she never could have fathomed.

“I owe everything to this program,” said Wilson, now 37 and the mother of two children. “It allows students to become something more than they realize.”

Options, a beloved program that has been a lifeline and offered a second family to Gresham High School’s most vulnerable students the past 26 years, is on the cutting board for next year.

Facing a $5 million budget shortfall for next year with a budget based on $6.55 billion from the state, the Gresham-Barlow School district is making tough decisions on where to spend its limited resources.

Gresham High’s share of district staff cuts is a 7.43 full-time employee (FTE) reduction for next school year, with Options accounting for 1.33 FTE of those cuts.

“This is such a heartbreaking time for education in the state,” said Carla Piluso, a school board member. “This is an issue close to my heart in this community. No decision around reductions in staff and programs are easy.”

But for families influenced by Options, the news is devastating.

Students, teachers, alumni, families, social workers and community members have rallied behind Options the past month, deeply concerned about losing a saving grace for students on the fringe.

“Any loss at this point is a massive loss to this school,” said Amanda Weber-Welch, a teacher and leader with the Options program. “But our demographic has changed drastically and we have significantly more students living in poverty, students who need additional supports.

“Sometimes there is a magnetism toward programs with lots of data, research and national name recognition, but this is something we have grown in Gresham. I don’t see any alternatives. It is highly successful as it stands. It is effective and loved by the community.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - In Options, students have a tradition called Compliments. They pass around a worn, 14-year-old ball and offer each other words of praise and admiration.

About 70 students are enrolled in Options each year, spending one class period in the program and the rest of their time in Gresham High classes.

Each Options class has about 12-14 students and focuses on goal setting and shifting difficult habits such as procrastination and anger management.

Students also check in with Weber-Welch about their grades at least weekly.

For students such as senior Lolo Burns, the program has helped transform their grades from Fs to As and instilled them with life and leadership skills.

Jennifer Copeland, a caseworker with Metropolitan Family Service, works with a variety of alternative high school programs, but to her, none compares to Options.

“Cutting the program would send a message to these students that they are no longer valued,” Copeland said. “It undermines everything the program has worked so hard to promote. The long term effects of students dropping out of school are far more expensive and a burden on the community. Options kids come in with tremendous risk factors and (the program) builds in protective factors.”

On a Wednesday morning in room 413, Options students circle up on well-loved couches and check-in with each other on their daily goals and habits they are trying to break.

They toss around a ball that’s been around 14 years and offer each other affirmations.

“Without your help, I wouldn’t be passing right now.”

“When I get off track, you push me to do the right thing.”

“Your outfits are freaking awesome and your drawings are amazing.”

“You radiate positivity.”

“We use a model that has students in a variety of stages of change,” Weber-Welch said. “Their issues that create instability don’t go away because they’ve entered Options — they have a second family where they’re really supported.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Amanda Weber-Welch is the main teacher and leader of the Options program this year. She fears what will happen to at-risk students in the program if it is eliminated by the district next year.

Options began 26 years ago with the leadership of Gresham High School teacher, Rick Bartha. Throughout the 1980s, Bartha had witnessed a shift in demographics in Gresham and started to hear the words “at-risk youth” come up often.

As someone who had always worked with the underdog students, creating Options was a natural fit for Bartha. He retired last school year, but has remained involved this year.

“The kids don’t understand why this program they love so much might be taken away," he said.

If the state of Oregon provided additional K-12 funding or the Gresham-Barlow Education Association agrees to four furlough days, the district would review the budget and determine whether funding for Options could be restored.

The program is scheduled to be eliminated at this time.

James Hiu, superintendent of secondary education and operations for the district, said students will have access to Gresham High’s Math Tutoring Center, can receive support from the school’s counselors and can participate in the SUN Program.

He said they also will have access to support from the school’s licensed clinical social worker, and that the district offers alternative schools with Alpha High School and the Rosemary Anderson East Program.

But Weber-Welch is already having students tell her they will want to drop out and quit without Options, a program that allows them to stay within a comprehensive high school.

She wants to hear many more Options success stories like Wilson's.

Today, Wilson works at a private security company and her husband, Darin, is a corrections officer. Their oldest child, D.J. Wilson, is about to graduate from Gresham High School.

“I have always been very open and honest with my children about the mistakes we made,” Wilson said. “We instilled in them at a very early age the importance of education.”

“Options taught me not to be ashamed or embarrassed of the life I chose,” Wilson said. “It took the negative and nurtured it into something positive.”

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