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Alternative high school is 'family' for students facing challenges

At Colorado's Finest High School of Choice, students get 'mutual care,' not just academics


Sometimes, it's stress. Sometimes, it's feeling ignored. Other times, it's feeling like people just aren't supporting you.

Some people might get flashbacks of high school just from reading those words, but for students at Colorado's Finest High School of Choice in Englewood, those issues often aren't part of the high school experience. Instead, students at Colorado's Finest attend a place where students call teachers by their first name and “family” at school is part of every day.

“They work to maintain the peaceful, wholesome, family type of school. It just seems more relaxed,” said Brice Archuleta, a junior who came to Colorado's Finest from a large, traditional high school in a neighboring district in fall 2016.

Archuleta said his old school was “your stereotypical high school” with cliques and that it was a negative environment for him.

“If you weren't pretty much popular or didn't have a lot of friends, you were an outcast. It was just very negative and down-putting,” Archuleta said.

Colorado's Finest serves students from age 14 to 21, and at least 90 percent of students have an individualized education program (IEP) or are “high-risk” for dropping out, as defined by the state Education Department. That includes, among other factors, students who are pregnant or parenting, have an incarcerated parent or guardian, have a history of substance abuse, have a history of child abuse or neglect, have a mental or behavioral disorder, have been a juvenile delinquent, have dropped out of school, or are older than traditional age for their grade level and are behind on credits.

When Archuleta came to Colorado's Finest, he noticed that diverse groups of people were sitting and talking to each other, a change from his old school.

Remi Trauernicht, a senior who deals with anxiety, said she wasn't taken seriously at her previous high school, the same as the one Archuleta attended.

“There were times when I would have an anxiety attack at school, and I'd walk in and say I need to meet with my counselor ... and the first thing they'd say is, `Do you have an appointment? Are you on an off period? So you're supposed to be in class,' ” Trauernicht said. “I'd just look at them like, I don't plan this.

“It's invalidating."

At Colorado's Finest, there's more support, she said. Her teachers allow her to go home if she needs to or leave class to talk to counselors.

“I've never heard someone say `I feel like no one cares' ” here, Trauernicht said.

Being open to students with different learning styles was the difference for Kai Drummond, an 18-year-old junior who transferred from a STEM school in the metro Denver area.

“All the teachers were cool there, but they just weren't working with me on a personal level,” said Drummond, who is a “kinetic learner” who uses a stress ball or paces back and forth to help absorb information.

Teachers at Colorado's Finest give each student a more personal approach, Drummond said, for people who need to do things like wear sound-amplifying headphones or have unplugged earbuds in to cancel out extra sound. After being allowed to move how he wants to, Drummond's test scores went up, he said.

After missing large numbers of days at his old school due to gallbladder issues and anxiety, Jaden McCorkle, a sophomore, is enjoying learning through video games and creative writing.

“Even when you don't think you're learning at this school, you are. And it's fun. You can't say that about every school,” said McCorkle, who used to attend a school in the Denver Public Schools district but felt uncomfortable due to student conflicts.

Kathryn Brown, a counselor at Colorado's Finest, said the students are resilient and “the strongest people” she knows.

“They don't give up,” Brown said. “It's amazing to work every day with people who are working so hard for their future.”

Justin Johnson, assistant principal, said it's important not to view the students as victims. Students go on to college and the military and other successes, Johnson said.

Archuleta said that without the “social problems of high school,” it's easier to learn. In their daily “family class,” a teacher whom students have for all their years at Colorado's Finest gets to know them and becomes their “go-to,” Brown said.

“Over here, it feels like there's a mutual care," Archuleta said, "and they want you to succeed."


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