For students like Nicole Gonzales, who is 19 and juggling a young child and a part-time job, the Payson Center for Success allows her to finish school and feeds her dream of becoming an ultrasound technician.
“It’s difficult trying to make time for everything,” Gonzales said. Her sister graduated from the school as well, which is how Gonzales discovered it, and now attends nursing courses at Gila Community College.
The Payson Center for Success educates about 50 students each year — some like Gonzales who are parenting, others who are behind on credits, and still others who are attracted to the individualized method of education that could conceivably allow a student to graduate early.
“We like to say we’re nontraditional as opposed to an alternative school,” said Principal Kathe Ketchem.
PCS is one of three local alternative schools, which seek to educate students who don’t fit in traditional classroom settings. PCS is imbedded within the Payson Unified School District, and Ketchem says that association benefits students.
“There needs to be a collaboration,” Ketchem said, adding that students from Payson High School occasionally take classes at PCS.
Other local alternative schools include the Payson Education Center, which the county runs, and New Visions in Star Valley. The Roundup recently featured New Visions, and will profile PEC in an effort to illuminate the schools’ various offerings.
At PCS, Ketchem says they tailor a student’s education to his interests. Even the novels assigned for English class vary from student to student. “We don’t want any fake reading,” Ketchem said — CliffsNotes for instance.
Students interview at the school and sign contracts that outline behavior and attendance expectations before enrolling.
Roughly 6 percent of the school’s students are parents, less than 5 percent are on probation, and about 78 percent of students are behind in credits, though Ketchem said the percentages vary yearly.
“We have more than one population of at-risk students,” Ketchem said. “I think the district can service all populations.”
Some students don’t learn well during lectures; other students have behavioral problems and need the family-like environment alternative schools offer. Still other students learn faster than traditional schools can teach them.
“We lose kids in the public system because we’re not meeting the challenges,” Ketchem said. Usually the school has a waiting list. However, last week there were two open seats.
Roughly 22 percent of Ketchem’s students aren’t behind in credits, she said.
At PCS, students take one class at a time, and finish one roughly every three weeks.
“The minute they finish a class, they move on to the next class,” Ketchem said.
Inside the school, which was once a church, a large central room holds computers where students sit and take their classes.
Ketchem said that roughly 40 percent of a class is composed of computer-assisted lessons, while the remainder consists of textbooks and research papers. Students are required to achieve at least 80 percent on most computer assignments, and 70 percent for most written assignments.
“It’s not like we just plug them in,” Ketchem said.
If a grade falls short of the requirement, students must re-do the assignment.
The same work-until-success philosophy extends to attendance. PCS requires 100 percent attendance, which means that after three absences, students are suspended for six weeks, after which they can re-enroll.
Only 20 hours each week are required of students, with five-hour morning and afternoon sessions offered. Friday sessions provide time to recoup lost hours during the other four weekdays.
If a student is absent, he has 10 school days to make up that time. If he doesn’t make up the time, he accrues an absence.
The same standard applies for disciplinary problems. In the past five years, 11 students have been withdrawn for discipline problems, and placed on six-week suspension, Ketchem said. They can return on behavior contracts after the six weeks, which seven of those 11 students have chosen to do.
In 2007, 27 percent of students graduated in four years, and 47 percent graduated in five years, according to the Arizona Department of Education. Ketchem said that judging her students against a four-year graduation rate is unfair.
“If a student comes to us a year or more behind, it’s simply impossible” for that student to graduate in four years, she said.
The individualized nature of study requires maturity, Ketchem said. Students must motivate themselves.
Gonzales said it’s not difficult for her to stay motivated — “My daughter motivates me to finish,” she said.
Teacher Linda Gibson said an initial acclimation period passes before the student “buys-in.”
“They don’t see that they’re in charge at first,” she said. After that, “you can see tremendous growth.”
Gibson says she watches students’ maturity levels, study skills and work quality dramatically improve as time passes. “You see kids do fewer re-dos.”
Although the school is geared to be a four-year program, most students take five years to graduate, she said.
PCS’s mascot is the dragon — the mythic creature represents power, wisdom and majesty, school materials explain. Students, through Dragon Heart, volunteer in the community. Students also job shadow or intern to prepare them for the workforce.
Adventures like hiking the Grand Canyon occasionally take the place of physical education.
“Some kids learn differently and they need a different delivery style,” Ketchem said. And students like Gonzales are given the alternative schedule they need to succeed. “I probably wouldn’t be in school,” if it weren’t for PCS, she said.