More than one way to learn

Published on Thu, Jun 20, 2002 by Christine Callan

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More than one way to learn

By Christine Callan

Some students go because they have to, some go because they want to, but whatever the reason they end up there, students at Timber Ridge High School have a different take on education.

Noah Myers, Amber Chaput, Justin Cleere, Shealeen Hagar, Shonda Murphey, Andrew Weaver and Kari White of Blaine, all graduated from Timber Ridge this month.

Timber Ridge is unique in that it serves five school districts – Blaine, Meridian, Mt. Baker, Lynden, and Nooksack Valley. Approximately 220 students attend the school, 50 of them from Blaine school district, which represents almost ten percent of student enrollment in the Blaine school district.

According to Scott Ellis, the vice-principal at Blaine high school, Timber Ridge has a great program and most students go to Timber Ridge by choice. “I have had a lot of kids come into my office who are interested in going there,” Ellis said. “The ten percent doesn’t mean much to me. It’s just a number.” Ellis was excited that Blaine had the most graduates of all the five school districts.

Timber Ridge’s mission is to provide quality, innovative education to high-risk youth with the hope it will foster life long learning and give them the skills to contribute to the greater community, said Timber Ridge principal Larry Spencer.

“We find out what their passions are and really get to know the students and what works for them,” said Spencer. “We provide more hands on learning than your standard courses and we try to individualize the lessons as much as possible.”

Timber Ridge began in August, 1998 after founder Kirk Shields-Priddy moved to the area from Chicago. He was employed with Menta, a national, non-profit organization based in Chicago whose mission is to provide high quality, innovative residential and crisis-intervention services to at-risk youth and their families. The same year, a school exploration committee was formed in Lynden to examine the dropout rate amongst high school and middle school kids. Shields-Priddy went to one of these meetings as a resource and the committee became very interested in what Menta had done throughout the Midwest.

“We (Menta) contract with school districts and serve them according to their needs,” Shields –Priddy said. After Menta agreed to contract with the five school districts, Timber Ridge opened its doors with some doubt of whether the need was great enough to fill capacity of 40-60 kids. On the first day, 101 kids showed up. By Christmas of 1998, Timber Ridge was at capacity of 225 students. “We were literally busting out of the walls,” Shields-Priddy said. “We had to do some renovation and reconstruction.”

During this time of reconstruction, Shields-Priddy entered into a discussion with the department of social and health services (DSHS) about the high number of homeless and runaway teens. As a result of this discussion, the Birch Bay House and the Evergreen House in Everett were started for homeless and runaway students. These are also affiliated with Menta.

Today Timber Ridge has extended its programs to include a core middle school program and it is one of the few private/public partners in the state, according to Shields-Priddy. “We couldn’t ask for a better working relationship with the school districts.”

Although many Timber Ridge students work on a contract basis, meaning they usually meet once a week with a teacher to work on assignments and homework, other students participate in the core high school program which operates as a traditional high school. Timber Ridge also offers a self-contained, five-day-a-week, special education program, which provides a highly structured, safe setting for students with special education needs.

There are a number of programs that students can take that make Timber Ridge unique. These include a tobacco education and cessation program to teach students about the use of tobacco, substance abuse counseling from Sea Mar which is available if a student asks for help and a teen parent program, which is an on-site daycare for teen parents and employees. Student volunteers also help out weekly with the Whatcom County Humane Society in Bellingham.

Retired BHS teacher, John Liebert is now a Timber Ridge teacher. He has 15 students he is currently working with on a “contract” basis.
Liebert said for most kids, it is helpful to have the one-on-one accountability.

“In regular school, you’re dealing with masses, hour after hour and if you are involved in any after-school activities, you have very little one-on-one time with students,” Liebert said. “When you see the light go on in somebody’s mind who hasn’t had previous success, it’s truly exciting to see them re-energized to continue.”

Success at Timber Ridge is measured differently for each individual. Some students have a goal of returning to public school, getting their GED and others hope to graduate.

Justin Cleere is an 18-year-old senior who graduated from Blaine high school at Timber Ridge on Monday, June 10. He began contract learning after he was expelled from Blaine high school last year. He has met with Liebert once a week this year and he is glad he made the choice to finish school. “I did something I probably would not have been able to do at regular school,” Cleere said. “This was much better for me because I was able to do things on my own time and at my own pace. It is helpful to have one-on-one interaction with the teacher. You get more positive attention.” Cleere is planning on doing an apprenticeship program after graduation.
Nigel Sherman is another Blaine student who has worked with Liebert for about a month. As an 8th grader, Sherman made the decision to move over to Timber Ridge after his school counselor recommended it to him. “It was not a hard decision because they said it was the only way I’d be able to pass,” Sherman said. “There is every odd person who says Timber Ridge is for out of control kids. But everyone I hear from says it’s good and they commend me for staying in school.”

“We work with all kinds of kids – kids who aren’t successful in traditional schools, kids who are at risk for dropping out or have already dropped out but want to come back and finish, kids with behavioral problems or kids who just want to do something alternative,” Spencer said.

“We have had a lot of success stories from Blaine,” said Shields-Priddy.

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