Raelee Lucero, 18, a Durango High School senior, is on track to graduate, something she couldn’t imagine a year ago in the depth of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I did really badly my freshman and sophomore years, and COVID hit, and things got even worse, and I didn’t have any help,” she said. “I was going to seven classes a day. They were giving me essays, and I just ended up getting really behind, and I ended up giving up. I found out about Elevation, and it really helped me.”
Elevation, a first-year program at DHS, provides small-group learning opportunities for about 75 students who have fallen behind scheduled to graduate and are at risk of dropping out.
David Sanchez, 18, also a DHS senior, describes himself as a troubled student.
“I started out my high school years troubled, I guess,” he said. “I always got into trouble, and I was always screwing up and never showed up to classes and procrastinated a lot.”
David said a habit of procrastinating worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he missed a lot of school.
He found himself behind in four classes when he started Elevation, this year. Through the program, he has caught up and is on track to graduate.
“The environment, the people, the teachers, it’s comfortable,” he said. “The teachers are sociable and you can connect with them.”
Building relationshipsHe attributes strong relationships with Elevation’s teachers as a big part of breaking his habit of missing school. Now, he’s caught up and focused on staying on track to graduate, he said.
Marcia Hoerl, DHS’s coordinator of alternate education, said the genesis for the Elevation program came from discussions she had with Jon Hoerl, her husband and DHS principal, about starting a program tailored to meet the needs of students who do not do well in a traditional school model.
The Hoerls had seen successful programs for students who don’t thrive in the traditional educational model, and they thought such a program could help some struggling DHS students.
Hiring for the program began last year, a month before COVID-19 hit, and Elevation greeted its first students in August when the 2020-21 school year began.
Students in the program might be a few classes or more than a year behind the pace to graduate.
Building life skillsChantey Webbe, Elevation’s humanities teacher, said, “Elevation really works for kids who work in a small learning environment. It’s very relational, and we give a lot of wraparound supports as well as personalized learning.
“I think the other thing is, at Elevation, at least my philosophy is, we really try to support kids in preparing them for life and not just for school.”
A key to Elevation’s success, she said, is personalized learning for each student and helping them with executive skills, such as time management and organization.
Strengthening behaviors helpful in meeting life’s stresses and obstacles – building students’ skills of resiliency, perseverance, self-advocacy and communication – is key, Webbe said.
“We try to meet their individual needs on a regular basis or come up with plans to do so,” she said.
Opening doorsMichelle Flom, Elevation’s math teacher, said the team has recently been working on Elevation’s mission statement, and they decided it all boiled down to opening doors.
“Our vision is simply opening doors for all, whether that’s college, a job, whether it’s the military. It’s just preparing our students,” she said.
Elevation’s small groups, Flom said, means teachers can really help students meet their goals not only academically but their goals for life after high school.
“We want to make sure that doors are open for them when they leave here because a high school diploma is not worth a whole lot if there’s nothing afterward, so that’s what we’re really aiming for,” Flom said.
Marcia Hoerl said DHS educators look at historical data, such as grades, test scores, attendance patterns and recommendations from teachers and counselors who know the students, when looking for students who might thrive with the small groups and personalized learning offered in the Elevation program.
Identifying studentsMany times conversations are going on with middle school educators about students who might be helped by Elevation.
Students are interviewed before joining Elevation to discuss the program. Students are usually recommended for Elevation by teachers and educators they have worked with in the past, but parents can also request their children be placed in the program, Hoerl said.
Flom added: “What’s really neat right now, because the word is out and we have some really great kids who are sharing their successes, we have students reaching out to us, asking to join, which is really cool, advocating for themselves and telling us how they would use the tools and resources that we have.”
Raelee, who started in Elevation in the spring semester, appreciates Elevation’s tight-knit community.
“It’s a smaller group, and I feel like I get more attention, and I don’t feel so overwhelmed,” she said. “I feel like the connection to your teachers is a really big part of it because you can open up and ask them for help, but in my other classes, I was really embarrassed to ask questions. The teachers here are more open, and I feel like we have a good connection going on.”