By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
You can talk to almost any one of the 105 students in WWCC’s Alternative Education Program and hear a version of this story:
“ I never thought I would complete high school, and I never envisioned myself going on and completing a college degree. I experienced a lot of trauma and abuse as a child and teenager. But because of the Alternative Education Program (AEP), in 1996 I was the first one in my family to graduate on time with a high school diploma.”
That’s Angela Gomez speaking. Today she holds a B.A. in sociology, and a Master’s degree in social work, with a certification in public administration. She’s been WWCC’s Director of High School Programs, one of which is the AEP, since 2016.
Nancy Jacobsen started the AEP in 1989 under the auspices of the Blue Mountain Action Council, took over the program as a WWCC employee in 1992, and retired in 2008. Her goal was to give students like Gomez an educational opportunity outside the traditional high school system. She did this by creating a program for students between 16 and 20 years old, who didn’t have high school diplomas but had enough time to complete high school requirements before turning 21.
Although WWCC’s AEP was unique when it was founded, in 2010 the Washington Open Doors Youth Reengagement Act created a statewide reengagement system for out-of-school youth that funds alternative instructional models.
Jacobsen continues to believe that the most important factor in students’ success is whether they can make a strong connection, either with staff or fellow students. “Many students feel that this is the first good school experience they’ve had,” she says. “They’re in a college environment, so they avoid a lot of the high school social issues. And AEP offers students who feel disenfranchised a sense of belonging and acceptance.”
Nick Funk is 17, and graduating this month with both his high school diploma and an associate’s degree that will catapult him directly to Western Washington University. He attributes his success to that atmosphere of belonging and acceptance.
He remembers looking around his public school system and thinking that everyone else was doing fine, while he felt out of place and alienated. The pressure was enough to warrant him a diagnosis of anxiety and depression, with even something as seemingly simple as a school assembly provoking panic attacks.
“So coming here and finding a place where I didn’t have to ‘fit in’ was one of the best things that could have happened to me,” he says. “Here everyone’s focused on learning, we’re all just trying to get knowledge into our heads so we can get ahead. It’s been one of the most freeing experiences of my entire life, to find a program where I can just be myself.”
Jesse Brown is another student who came to AEP looking for acceptance. She’s 19 now, and will receive her high school diploma this month. Born in Yakima, she moved to Waitsburg when she was 13 to live with her grandparents, because she was getting bullied at her school in Naches. She regularly missed school due to stress illnesses related to the bullying.
She calls AEP her second chance. “Before I came to AEP I was a C student at best, and I had to go to truancy court,” she recalls. “Now I have straight As, I’m in the top 5% of my class, and I’m the student speaker at graduation this year. I’m going to be the first person in my family to go to college, and I’m going to do whatever it takes.”
Her current goal is a lofty one, to get a four-year degree in psychology with a plan to work in education, perhaps as a school guidance counselor.
Although once she avoided school at all costs, now she takes the long view: “When I’m older and have kids I want to be able to better their future, and that takes bettering my own.”
Oscar Meza, although born in Walla Walla, grew up all up and down the west coast, in an unstable family environment that included drug and alcohol abuse, with parents that bounced in and out of jail.
Eventually he dropped out of high school, moved out of the family home with the help of his aunt, and worked at various jobs. He discovered that he liked working with his hands, with machinery, and carpentry. He even went alone to Alaska, working processing fish, octopus, and crab.
“Knowing that I’m so young and capable, I just couldn’t stay in those kinds of jobs all my life,” he says. “I finally realized that school is the way to go, if you want to secure your fate. I just focus on my future and let the past be the past. I can’t change it, but I can learn from it.”
Now 20, he’ll proudly walk across the stage to receive his hard-earned diploma, and hopes to pursue a career in avionics.
Gomez is used to seeing her students succeed. “When you give students the chance to enter a new, adult environment, they seem to feel the need to increase their maturity level,” she says. “They get a fresh, new start here and that’s an opportunity for many of our students to re-invent themselves.”
And although she’s retired, Jacobsen continues to reap the rewards of her efforts nearly 30 years ago. “Today, after all these years, I still see my students around town,” she says. “And they tell me that if it weren’t for AEP they wouldn’t be where they are today, that it made a significant difference in their lives.”