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Small school, big impact: Southwest offers students alternative to traditional high school

Carson Neurohr works on his classwork at Southwest Community High School. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)1 / 2
Drake Wilson gets ready to leave Southwest Community High School for the last time. He's taking with him meat pizza--his favorite ordered in celebration of his graduation-- and his Christmas stocking. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)2 / 2

Southwest Community High School is a small alternative school with just 27 students and three teachers, but it makes a big impact. It offers students an alternative to the traditional high school model, providing them with self-paced classes, flexible schedules and valuable student-teacher relationships.

"A regular high school is not for everyone," said Kristy Goodall, administrator at Southwest. "It doesn't mean that kids don't still want to learn, they don't still want to get their high school diploma. This gives them the opportunity to do it differently."

The school is designed to meet students where they are. Southwest works around its students' work schedules and even lets them bring their infants younger than six months old to class.

All instruction is given on a one-to-one basis, and each student has their own individualized education plan. Their classes are self-paced but must be completed within 38 days — 48 if it's a lab science class.

The school teaches them life skills as well. Guest speakers from the community teach the students independent living skills such as opening a bank account, acquiring a car loan and finding an apartment.

The students at Southwest are a varied bunch, ages 16 to 20 (though it accepts people as old as 21). The school has students who are parents, students who live on their own, students who work and students who are behind in their credits.

Eighteen-year-old Drake Wilson came to Southwest from Dickinson High School when he was 16. When he arrived, he had only six credits. He graduated Thursday, which he thinks is about two years sooner than he would have if he hadn't transferred.

He liked Southwest because he could work independently at his own pace.

"At DHS, you had to work as a class, like a No Child Left Behind-type thing," he said. "I would know what I'm doing, get ahead, then ... if someone else didn't get it, we'd have to wait until he got it (before) we could move on. So then I'd just kind of sit there. Then once we moved on, I didn't realize we'd moved on, and then I'd get behind. I'd end up failing the classes."

Caylee Miller is 16 and pregnant — and well on her way to graduation. She hopes to finish school this semester so she can get a full-time job to provide for herself and her baby, who is due in April.

She likes that she can take classes online and work on them at home, the quiet environment, and that she has a lot of one-on-one time with her teachers, who she said are really encouraging and helpful.

"They make the time for you even if it's not (about) school," she said. "They will talk to you about stuff, especially Mrs. Goodall."

Goodall is proud of how far Caylee has come.

"She's a good kid," she said. "That's a kid who came to us, and I didn't know if she was going to make it. When she came to me this fall, she was angry. ... There aren't many kids that I just go holy cow, what a difference. She's pulled herself together, pulled her life together."

Goodall said the relationships they make with their students are important.

"My number one thing that I stress with my staff — every time we have a staff meeting, every time we meet, every time we talk — is how are your relationships going with the kids?" she said. "Relationships come first. You can't teach kids unless you have a relationship with them, especially these kids."

One of Goodall's other students, Mikaela Brown, started at Southwest her junior year. She's now 19 and works part time as a barista. She's had some ups and downs at Southwest, and even dropped out for a few months.

"There are times I had to push her," Goodall said. "I said I won't let her fail. At the end of her junior year, she said 'No, I don't want to do this anymore.' ... She kind of shut down on me. She wanted to drop out of a class, and I wouldn't let her. I said, 'No. You don't even get to take another class until you finish this one.'"

It took her four months to finish that class, but she did.

"I pushed myself to limits that I never knew I could reach before," Mikaela said. "I achieved a lot of things academically, and I'm starting to look at my life a lot different — dreams I never thought I could have, that were possible."

Now she's just a few weeks away from graduating.

The future looks bright for the students at Southwest. Drake, Caylee and Mikaela already have post-graduation plans. Drake will take a welding program at Bismarck State College. Caylee hopes to become a social worker for juvenile delinquents. Mikaela aspires to become a cosmetologist.

When people outside of Southwest ask Goodall about her school, they say isn't that where the bad kids go?

She tells them, "'No, I have really good kids. They've made some bad decisions. ... But ultimately, they're just kids.'"