Students covet a small side room with robin’s egg blue walls inside the county’s alternative school. The distraction-free room allow students to work well alone, said Payson Education Center Principal Carol Moore.
The school’s main room is open and potentially ripe for distraction.
“First of all, they’re teenagers and they want to talk all the time,” Moore said.
And secondly, these students need a little something extra so they can be successful.
The Payson Education Center aims to educate students who might not otherwise be in school, whether because of behavioral problems or special needs, among other things. County Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell runs the school, which had 57 students enrolled as of Friday. She also runs another campus in Globe.
The education center has much in common with the Payson Center for Success, which is the Payson school district’s alternative school. Schools serve essentially the same group of at-risk students.
Students at both schools attend either a morning or an afternoon session four days each week, with Friday offered as a make-up day. The county’s education center, however, also offers an evening session from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Moore said many students who choose this option are either older, say 18 or 19, or very close to graduating.
Students at Payson Unified School District’s alternative school usually complete one class at a time, and while students at the education center have that option, they can also complete multiple classes at a time. Each student’s educational plan is tailored to how he or she learns best, Moore said.
The education center also offers quarter-credits, which sophomore Dylan Vezzetti says collect quickly.
“I’m addicted to quarter-credits,” he said. “I get them like crazy.”
Vezzetti has attended Payson High School, Payson Center for Success, and now attends the education center.
After being kicked out of PHS — Vezzetti said he missed 240 classes in one semester — he enrolled in Payson Center for Success. The school was too strict, he said, requiring silence. “I couldn’t handle that,” he said.
At the education center, Vezzetti says he likes the teachers and the relative freedom offered. He likes going to school now, he said, and stays for the afternoon session to tutor other students.
“I’m not missing school anymore,” he said. “I’m staying after.”
Teresa Bunker used to be a probation officer and she now teaches at the education center.
“If we can get them to show up and be encouraged a little bit about their education, then we have a chance with them,” she said.
As a probation officer, Bunker has handcuffed some of the kids she now teaches. “I wondered how they would accept me,” she said.
However, Bunker said many of the students have taken responsibility for their actions and say, “I put myself in those positions.”
Both the Payson Education Center and the Payson Center for Success are running at nearly full capacity.
The education center’s critics say the schools duplicate services and that the education center absorbs finite resources. Advocates say the school is often a student’s last resort.
“I have kids that are making it only three days a week, but I’m not going to slam the door on them,” Moore said. Attending school three days a week might take a student six years to graduate, but Moore said she’s happy those kids are attending.
Roughly half of the education center students at both campuses combined are court-involved, compared to the roughly 2 percent on probation at Payson school district’s Center for Success.
The kids, Moore said, “say we’re not a last chance school. We’re a new chance school.”
She tries to help students set goals. “If you’re aimed nowhere, that’s where you’re going to go,” she said.
Vezzetti used to imagine he’d be a marine biologist or an astronomer. “I like the stars and the water,” he said. Now, he’s found that he enjoys teaching.
Caleb Parkerson, who says he was kicked out of Payson High School for being late too many times, wants to join the Coast Guard. The military services’ regimen attracts Parkerson, who said he seeks strong guidance.
At a school like the education center, where each child is treated as an individual, according to Bunker, students like Parkerson and Vezzetti can perhaps flourish.
“I think what’s important is students do have choices, Bunker said. “No matter what school they’re in, I just care that they’re in school.”