Disenchanted students find success at Options High School in Bellingham

Options High School teacher Michelle Wilhelm works with students in her English class on a poetry anthology at the school in Bellingham on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. At right is student Lavaun Vermeulen.
Options High School teacher Michelle Wilhelm works with students in her English class on a poetry anthology at the school in Bellingham on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. At right is student Lavaun Vermeulen. The Bellingham Herald

Michelle Wilhelm thought her first classroom would be full of little desks, the walls covered in crayon drawings.

Instead, the tables are large and the bookshelves crammed with young adult and classic novels.

A high school full of students who chose an alternate path to education wasn’t in her plans.

But it was in her past.

Wilhelm, the English teacher at Options High School, was one of those teens disenchanted with school.

“I went to five high schools and had 40-something unexcused absences one semester,” Wilhelm said. “My teachers didn’t know if I was there or not. They didn’t know me.”

At Options, the goal is to know every one of the 109 kids, their qualities and their struggles. And to help them finish high school, even if it takes a little longer.

Take Jabriona Dorsey, also known as Breezy, who is set to graduate on Monday, June 22, at age 19. When she came to Options in 2010 as a freshman she was rebellious, continuously yelled at the staff and refused to listen to anyone, she and Wilhelm said. Under the surface, she was struggling with difficulties at home that led to her bad attitude and lack of effort at school.

“I wasn’t really motivated. I was always leaving at lunch or not wanting to go and all that,” Dorsey says. “Then I actually got pregnant with my son and that stopped me from going to school; that’s why I’m a super senior. After him I think that’s what motivated me to start coming.”

Dorsey attended Bellingham High School and Squalicum High School for a short time during her freshman year. Once she was motivated to finish school for her son, Dorsey knew Options, an alternative high school in the Bellingham School District, would be the place where she could really succeed.

“It’s so much bigger than just teaching,” Wilhelm said. “It’s about these moments where kids go through periods of time where they need us, either to get clean or rehabilitated or find housing, and they’re struggling. And then because we showed that we care about them, they want to work hard for us.”

The once-rebellious Dorsey is now a straight “A” student and teaching assistant.

The students at Options may not always have clean clothes to wear to school, or the gas in the car to get them to school. Sixty-seven percent of Options students received free or reduced lunch for the 2014 school year based on their family’s household income, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, compared to 28 percent of students at Bellingham High School.

“All those kinds of obstacles make it a whole different ball game when they’re trying to get through high school,” said school counselor Chris Cochran. “Sometimes our students have to persevere more to get through those obstacles.”

The standard by-the-book education didn’t work for Wilhelm when she was in school, so she’s modified her curriculum for her students. Her 11th and 12th grade class has been partnering with students in Western Washington University’s Woodring College of Education to make documentaries about people’s pursuit of happiness. She’s also having students from other classes work with scripts and storyboards, as well as writing analytical essays on films.

“I feel like anyone can stand up and teach a concept, but teaching individual kids is totally different,” Wilhelm said. “Knowing the student, knowing how they learn and what they’re passionate about is different.”

The unique curriculum, and the efforts of teachers, have worked for students like Shantel Roddey. Now a senior and a teaching assistant for Dorsey, Roddey says she feels the support of teachers who truly want her to do better in life.

“It seems like (the teachers) focus on what the majority of the class needs, not just what they need to get done,” Roddey said. “You get time to talk to your teachers and have a better understanding of the class. They helped me just by being there.”

The Bellingham School District is aiming to help more students like Roddey and Dorsey who thrive in the Options environment. A new building coming in 2017 will replace the seven portables that currently house the school by the Bellingham High School campus.

The new learning center at 2015 Franklin St. also is expected to become home to multiple other programs including an English Language Learners newcomers center; Career and Technical Education for middle and high school students; and the Graduation, Reality and Dual-Role Skills program, better known as GRADS, that helps pregnant and parenting teens.

An advisory committee has been working on the plans for this new school/center and is expected to deliver recommendations to district Superintendent Greg Baker by the end of this month, said district spokeswoman Jacqueline Brawley.

Fourteen students graduated from Options in 2014. On Monday night, 27 Options students are set to walk across the Bellingham High School Theatre stage to receive their diplomas. Some of them will have achieved it after four years in high school, while others took a little longer to finish the required credits.

To counselor Cochran and the other Options staff, that’s not the only measurement of success..

“Obviously the point of (Options) is so that kids can graduate,” Cochran said. “But beyond that, I think that if we have kids for four years and they don’t feel cared for, then we haven’t done our job.”