Beyond the blackboard jungle

Keith Omlid leads a class at Eola Alternative School. The school provides another choice for students who find it difficult to thrive in mainstream classes.

EOLA -- Fourteen students proofread an assignment as golden morning sun beams through tall windows, carpeting the back of the room. Jimi Hendrix pleads from a radio on the teacher's desk.

"...Let me stand next to your fire!"

Some students listen to their own music on headphones. To the others, Jimi blurs into the background roar of Highway 22.

His wails are lost on this crowd, his guitar licks as atmospheric as a passing semi.

No one's at the Eola school to rock -- they're there to learn.

Junior Lyle Wimer went to Central High School before his schoolwork started to slip. "It was more about being with friends at Central," he said.

In his first week at Eola, Wimer's only begun to make friends. But he's already learning. He chose Eola to help him catch up and return to Central for senior year.

He chose Eola.

That's not always the case with alternative programs, said Susan Murray. Murray, with Keith Omlid, runs the Eola program.

Some districts use alternative schools as dumping grounds, as juvenile holding pens, she said. But students looking to avoid responsibility should also avoid Eola. Students there see immediate consequences for everything they do.

"Here, your seats are competitive," Wimer said. "You can be kicked out at any time."

In his fifth day of classes, he's already seen it happen.

Skip three days of school or miss a few assignments and you're on the next bus to Central.

There are even quicker routes. Take alcohol or drugs to school. Bring weapons. Throw a punch.

Murray has seen only one punch thrown in six years. It was the last thing that student did at Eola.

Students know their seats won't go empty for long, especially as the school's reputation spreads. This year, Eola has received even more attention.

The Central School District pulled its students out of another alternative school, leaving only Eola.

Central used to send 20 juniors and seniors to the Winema program at Chemeketa Community College. This year, budget cuts led the school board to first cut back, then then stop sending students to Winema altogether.

Eola picked up some, swelling from 25 to 35 students. The one-room schoolhouse split into two classrooms.

There's still a waiting list.

Even with the demand for Eola, Central's budget crisis very nearly shut down the school. After a turbulent summer, students learned Eola would survive just one week before classes started.

Senior Nancy Hensley found out at registration time. Instead of listing Central High courses, her class schedule said Eola.

The talk of moving Eola into a modular unit in Independence worried Hensley. "When I heard they would do it in a trailer at Central, I didn't know where I was going.

"Susan and Keith told us they wouldn't teach from a trailer and I would not go if they were not teaching."

If given no other option, Hensley said she could pick up her remaining credits at Central High. But not all Eola students can say that.

Some need the personal attention Omlid and Murray -- carrying a string of degrees and experience in alternative programs -- can provide.

They would fail -- indeed, some have failed -- if they were "mainstreamed," or returned to a large, traditional school, Murray said.

Some already have their own parole officers. "The P.O.s come by here and say `good, they're here.

"`I don't have to worry -- the kid will probably be attending school.'"

But Eola's successes alone did not save the school. While many successful programs and services are falling prey to budget gaps, district officials saw that closing Eola wouldn't save money in the end.

"A lot of people look at our numbers and say we're not cost-effective," Murray said. But Eola students stay in school.

And the State money Central gets for each student stays in the district.

This real-world economics lesson was not lost on Eola students. With so much riding on the results, it could have been an Eola class.

Last year, in a simulation students refer to simply as "the Game," they learned that living on one's own means more than just freedom and wild parties.

"You have to pay rent and get it in on time," Hensley said. "There's car payments, insurance payments.

"You have to balance a checkbook. It was a lot harder than I thought."

Former Eola student Amanda Mendell liked learning things she could relate to. Not math for math's sake, but math for doing taxes.

"For science, we studied birds instead of chemical formulas," she said. "The periodic table is one of the many things most of us will never need to know."

To Omlid, teaching useful skills is a way to treat students like human beings instead of calculators. "A lot of kids just see the gas station or Taco Bell in their future.

"There's a whole other world out there."

Eola helped senior Teresa Ledezma glimpse that world. Before, she wanted to attend beauty school.

She still want to become a beautician, only now she plans on doing so to save money for college.

Ledezma discovered she has a knack for marketing. She credits Murray with encouraging her to get more education.

"You just want to do the things Susan does -- she just inspires you.

"She's not just `Susan,' she's `Dr. Susan.'"

Murray feels she can relate to her students. A "bright but troubled high school student," she dropped out to pursue a hippie's life in the Bay Area.

Murray returned to school when she realized how hard that life actually was. But she might have never left if she had some encouragement. "If someone had told me I was smart, I would have liked school a lot better."

At Eola, Murray and Omlid don't have a monopoly on encouragement. The students give a good deal to each other.

When the chart by the door shows Richard Barnes' perfect record, he can't help bragging. He's turned in every assignment so far.

Miss one, and you get a triangle drawn next to your name. If you don't make up the work, the triangle gets colored in at the end of the week.

Each full triangle counts as a quarter-day absence. Any combination of missed work and missed school over two and one half days gets you booted from school.

The board gives a visual reminder of who's in trouble -- and who gets to gloat. "Of course, everyone wants to see everyone get it done," Barnes said.

"But if it's perfect, you can brag."

When sophomore Jacob Heinz came to Eola in the middle of last year, he caught on quickly. "All the kids who were there before didn't have triangles and I did."

He soon made up his work.

"The kids out there, they'll encourage you. They're not afraid to tell you if you're doing good or if you need to work on something."

Though some might get angry at the unsought opinions, Heinz doesn't see Eola students as typical school peers. "Once you get out there, everyone is so nice. They get to know you like you're part of the family."

Like any other, that family has its feuds. But if Eola students have a grudge, they don't have anywhere to put it.

"We're so small that there's not room to be mad at people," Ledezma said. "You still have to work with them."

Although Murray and Omlid recall surviving days after which they didn't want to return, they have far more inspiring moments. Ones that make them come back each new day and new year.

"There are those jewel moments when students are learning something new," Murray said. "I can't tell you how wonderful it can be when they get it."

In a descriptive writing sample, one student describes the gaping mouth of a beast that turns out to be a garbage can. Another ponders markers with "yellows able to challenge the sun's brightest rays, blacks as dark as the unmined coal."

Those are some of the smaller victories. The larger ones come when would-be dropouts go off to college.

Senior Josh Biles was kicked out of his old school in Corvallis. He now wants to finish college and start his own restaurant, as owner or chef.

Mendell was failing most of her classes and skipping regularly before coming to Eola. She wants to be a film director when she finishes school. Or a tiger trainer.

"Susan and Keith are always looking for every opportunity to urge their students towards college and possible future careers."

Hensley had always dreamed about becoming a first-grade teacher, but resigned herself to delaying that dream. "When I was getting behind on credits, I thought I would have to go to college later in life.

"Now that I'm going to graduate on time, I feel better about it."

Heinz had started skipping and getting into drugs. "The Game" taught him to prepare r‚sum‚s and applications and to keep everything in writing.

Like many other students, Heinz remembers once thinking of Eola as a school for bad or dumb kids. Fewer and fewer people share that view.

"People need to give it a chance instead of jumping to conclusions and listening to their buddies about how the program's run."

"The kids out there are some of the smartest people I know."

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