Alternative Education Program offers chance to finish high school

Walla Walla Community College's Alternative Education Program helps students who get their diplomas.

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Balancing her 4-month-old son, Malakai Salazar, and requests from her sister Dejeney Ojeda-Diaz, 8, Melissa Ojeda-Diaz, 18, tries to fit in some reading time to study for her sociology class at Walla Walla Community College as part of the Alternative Education Program. Ojeda-Diaz is taking classes at the college, working 32 hours a week and raising her son but still is on track to walk in the Walla Walla High School graduation ceremonies this coming spring.

WALLA WALLA — Melissa Ojeda-Diaz was a typical student at Walla Walla High School. Yet three years into high school, she had to leave her friends and classmates.

"I got pregnant," she said.

The arrival of her son, with a year to go in school, prompted some big changes. The typical school day, which can run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., wasn’t the best fit for the new mom, who needed to consider child care, her job and her schoolwork.

"It would have been too long of a day," she said about staying in high school.

Yet she was determined to finish. And supporting her son, now 4 months old, was a challenge, but also a driving force. So with support from school staff, Ojeda-Diaz explored her options. And the Alternative Education Program at Walla Walla Community College became the best fit.

Ojeda-Diaz is now on track to finish high school. And as an AEP participant, she will earn her Wa-Hi diploma and get to wear her cap and gown in the spring.

AEP is among a variety of programs available to area teens who might otherwise be at risk of dropping out of school. But unlike some options, like taking the high school equivalent, or GED exam, AEP participants earn a Wa-Hi degree and can participate in the graduation ceremony.

The program teaches high school courses, but is structured more like college. That means less class time, but more work to be done out of class.

This last quarter, Ojeda-Diaz was at the college by 8 a.m. for two classes, then picked her son up in time to get home and get ready for her job. She’d be home again by 7 p.m. to spend time with her son and finish class work.

The schedule is demanding, but Ojeda-Diaz is confident about her choices.

"I was just trying to do the best for the baby," she said.

The AEP program launched in 1991 at the college through an informal partnership with Walla Walla Public Schools. The program has one full-time instructor, Gary Benefiel, who covers several of the core classes the students need to take, like history, science and a college experience class. There are also some part-time teachers.

High school programs director Kimberly Cassetto said one draw of the AEP program is that it allows students to retrieve as many as 10 credits in a year.

As the school year hits the halfway mark, Cassetto has been evaluating possible program participants. As part of her job, Cassetto meets regularly with administrators from Wa-Hi and Lincoln Alternative High School. In one recent week, Cassetto enrolled 38 new students into the program, while dropping others who weren’t putting in the work. Current numbers are close to 170 students, although not firm.

"We are constantly in fluctuation," Cassetto said.

Yet many students, like Ojeda-Diaz, demonstrate the positive way the program works through hard work and commitment.

And while Ojeda-Diaz’s story is unique, it is not singular in the obstacles she had to overcome.

Brandon Johnson enjoyed a typical high school experience at Wa-Hi, but lost focus his senior year. A series of bad choices prompted him to move in with friends, and drop out of school with just a few months to go.

As Johnson looked for work, he realized earning his high school diploma was an inevitable first step. But taking the GED exam wasn’t enough.

"My mom had always wanted to see me walk," he said, and made that his goal.

For Jessica Sargent, 18, high school was a positive experience. She especially loved attending Wa-Hi.

"Everything about Wa-Hi is fantastic," she said. "I love Wa-Hi."

But by her junior, instability in her family life took a toll. She had moved several times and never felt quite at home. Despite enjoying high school and doing well initially, her family problems would consume her time and attention.

"It was hard for me to keep my grades up," she admitted.

When Wa-Hi was no longer a suitable choice, the AEP program helped her get back on track. Like Ojeda-Diaz and Johnson, Sargent is on track to finish school this year. In the fall, she plans to enroll in the U.S. Army. But before she can march off to boot camp, she’ll first participate in her high school graduation.

"I plan on walking this June," she said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

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