Each weekday morning, Principal John Hunter stands outside Albany Options School, greeting students as they arrive.
One particular day, classes had started and he was about to go inside. Then a last car pulled up.
It was obvious the tardy student was having a tough morning, Hunter recalled. The vehicle was old and didn't appear to be running well. The student, a girl, was scowling. Hunter thought about reminding her of the importance of timely attendance, then changed his tune and welcomed her to school.
The girl burst into tears and thanked him, spilling out her morning's struggles. And she went inside.
Hunter's gut tells him had he played his hand differently that morning, the student might have turned around and left. Instead, she stayed.
Choosing to stay is particularly important at a place like AOS, where every student is struggling with something that made an alternative high school a better academic placement.
Increasingly, statistics show students at AOS are choosing to stay more often than not — and to put in the work necessary to come out a graduate.
Assessment test scores at AOS are still far from the state average, and not everyone leaves the school with a diploma.
But school statistics show graduation rates are up, discipline problems and dropouts are down, and AOS is beating similar programs with similar demographics statewide.
Graduation rates have grown from 19 percent in 2014-15 to 43 percent in 2015-16, the most recent data available. Dropout rates are down from close to 10 percent in 2012-13 to 3.5 percent in 2015-16.
Out-of-school suspensions went from 66 in 2015-16 to 33 last year. Total disciplinary referrals sank from 185 in 2014-15 to 99 last year.
Almost 77 percent of AOS students completed school in 2015-16, the highest percentage of eight similar schools throughout the state, including Merlo in Beaverton and Roberts in Salem. The five-year completion rate for AOS was nearly 68 percent, beating six of the eight schools — only Merlo, at 72 percent, ranked higher.
Students and staff at AOS both say relationships, respect and trust are what make their school work. That's something Hunter has been promoting since he took the principal's position in fall 2014.
"I believe data will come," he said, "if you do other things first."
How it works
Albany Options School encompasses three alternative high school programs within Greater Albany Public Schools: IHS, Choices and a GED program.
IHS stands for Innovative High School, and is essentially the classroom-based, traditional model. Between 75 and 80 students take classes this way, counselor Anna Harryman said. Class sizes range from about 16 students down to four.
Choices is the AOS computer-based program. Students work independently on online classes and completing packets. It's offered twice a day and is used by 20 to 30 students combined.
The General Education Development program is offered daily and serves between 15 and 20 students at a time.
While younger students are accepted on occasion, most placements are set aside for juniors and seniors.
The programs are always at capacity and always have a waiting list, Harryman said. She and Hunter meet every six weeks with Rich Engel, assistant principal at West Albany High School, and Julie Foster-Teeter, assistant principal at South Albany High School, to talk about student referrals and see who might be the best fit.
At West, Engel said he meets weekly with administrators and counselors to talk about students who are concerning them. Students who might be good referrals for AOS usually fall into one of three categories, he said: ones who are having trouble because of class sizes or peer difficulties and who may need more individual attention, ones who are missing credits and don't have a lot of support or resources to get back on track; and ones who want to pursue a GED.
If an AOS program looks like the best option, Engel said, West Albany will schedule a meeting with the student and the parent to discuss the possibility. If everyone agrees, the student joins the waiting list.
It's not that credit recovery is impossible at West, Engel added, but some students get overwhelmed when they start to get behind.
"At AOS, their six-week rotation is much easier for students to see the end result," Engel said. "I always tell kids, you can do anything for six weeks! This system just seems to fit some students much better than the traditional semester approach."
Sometimes, said Foster-Teeter, even if a student is a great fit for AOS, there's resistance: the alternative program has long been seen as the place where the "bad kids" go. That's when she suggests a visit, or a short trial run, just to see.
AOS' small population and open-air room design makes for almost an old-fashioned "one-room schoolhouse" feeling, Foster-Teeter said. "For a lot of kids, it's a restart. They get to know the staff. The smaller classes make a big difference. Here, a lot of our students are little fish in huge ponds. There, they get to realize they’re bigger fish."
That's the way it felt for Leslie Lazcano, 17, who spent two years at South Albany before coming to AOS. "
"Right away, honestly, they made me feel welcome. They're like, 'Oh, y'know, you're at home,'" she said.
Foster-Teeter said she's heard some people say the district should ditch the waiting list and just make room at AOS for every student who qualifies for an alternative education plan. She doesn't agree.
In a way, the waiting list makes the school more desirable: a struggling student who makes the cut suddenly has some "skin in the game," she said.
"As an alternative kid, you may not have felt very successful," she said. "And if you get in, and had to work to get there, that means something."
How it began
Albany Options School was formed from a night high school credit recovery program for district dropouts, established in 1996, and an older alternative education program, which had been housed at the former McFarland School building at the south end of Albany.
In 2002, district officials began working on accreditation, consolidating all alternative programs. By 2003, the consolidated program had its own name: Albany Options School.
Until AOS, any students taking alternative education classes were considered to be a part of the school at which they originally enrolled. That's still the way alternative education works at many Oregon school districts, which means AOS scores can't be directly compared to, say, the College Hill program for high school students in Corvallis.
In Albany, Diane Smith was GAPS director of curriculum in the early 2000s, and she wanted to measure the academic progress of the district's alternative students.
The parent school situation caused her a "paperwork migraine," she said, because all records for each student — attendance, test scores, behavior referrals, transcripts — were kept at the school of origin. No one could tell how well the alternative education efforts were actually working without first pulling all the information from each individual and laying it out to compare. And by the 2002-03 school year, there were 392 students to track.
But even with a name, the new school didn't have much of its own identity. Students were still considered part of their original schools if they spent less than half their time at an alternative program, and still had the option of returning to their old schools to graduate.
The program didn't have its own home, either. The district tried housing both the night high school and the alternative school at McFarland, then moved both to the former Fairmount School building in North Albany in fall 2005.
By 2007, however, the district had decided it needed Fairmount as an elementary school to cope with growing enrollment in North Albany. AOS had to move again.
This time, however, GAPS had a new plan: use general fund dollars to construct a permanent residence on district-owned property on 19th Avenue, across from Sunrise Elementary School. The 18,000-square-foot, prefabricated metal building opened to students on Aug. 30, 2008.
How it grew
Albany Options School had a permanent residence, but it takes more than a building to feel like a home.
Candy Baker, who was principal when the school made its move, led the seniors of the first class housed there in creating a shield symbol with their own school colors: green, white and silver. They also developed the phase "AOS ROCKS," with the letters standing, respectively, for respect, ownership, courage, knowledge and safety.
Baker went on medical leave in 2011 and wasn't able to return. Hunter, who was named principal in 2014, has been working with his staff to build on Baker's efforts, making AOS look and feel more like a traditional high school.
In Hunter's first year, graduating seniors were allowed to wear a special "AOS" T-shirt. That prompted other students to ask for one.
Anna Harryman, then a teacher and now the school's counselor, challenged her Leadership students to work on a mascot symbol for 2015. They came up with a knight in full armor, holding a shield. Now, new student-designed AOS Knights T-shirts are issued each year, with special treats given out regularly for students who come wearing it.
Albany Options also changed its start time in 2015, which has been a key to strengthening academic success. It took a year's worth of work, but the benefits are clear, Hunter said.
Before, students came to school on a five-period schedule. The schedule now accommodates seven. The change allows students to earn between nine and 10.5 credits per year, compared with the 7.5 possible under the old schedule.
The difference is critical for students who come to AOS because of missing credits — and that's most of them. It also allowed the schedule to cover a few extra electives, which bookend the day so students are encouraged to come early, stay through their core instruction and wrap up with something fun.
How it helps
Students and staff say it's the fun things that build the sense of community that sets AOS apart.
The school is too small for a football team, and you won't find pep assemblies or proms on the schedule; things students admit they miss from their home schools. But staff members look for other ways to have a little informality.
Harryman brought cocoa and cookies and set up a fall-themed "selfie wall" in September to celebrate the turn of the seasons. Hunter makes it a point to wear crazily-decorated socks each day to give students something to ask him about. Students have regular opportunities to volunteer in elementary classrooms, at senior assisted living facilities and with community support organizations such as Fish.
"One day we had a barbecue here. Why can't we do that at South?" said Sage Floyd, 16, who transferred to the school from South Albany just a few weeks ago.
Floyd's early high school experience was marred by medical issues that prompted plenty of absences — and, she admits, led to even more skipped classes because she eventually stopped trying to make up missed work.
She didn't want to come to an alternative school — "Everyone always told me it was the bad-kids school, or for people who were really bad at school and didn't care," she said — but now wishes she'd come sooner.
With fewer students, teachers have more time to answer questions or help students work through concepts in new ways, she said. And those same small groups discourage cliques.
"There's no drama," she said. "No he-said, she-said. They nip it in the bud." How? "I have no idea. They're like spies, I swear."
Floyd said she still struggles to manage school, homework and a fast-food job, but said it's easier knowing the staff members have her back. When orders for new AOS T-shirts were due the day before payday, Hunter offered to cover her costs until she paid him back.
As one of some 1,300 students at her old school, she said, she never even spoke with the principal. Hunter knew her name, her job and her desire for the T-shirt. "I felt important," she said.
The small class sizes limit distractions, said Lazcano, who had a grade point average of 0.17 when she entered and earned a 3.25 her first term at AOS. "Honestly, we're all so motivated to get the job done and graduate."
Austin Stewart, 17, came to AOS three years ago from West Albany High School with a cumulative grade point average of just 1.77. In his first term at AOS, he earned a grade point average of 3.43, taking seven classes a day. He's now on target to graduate on time.
"I honestly didn't want to come here," Stewart said. Like Floyd, his impression was "AOS is where all the bad kids go. It's not a good school at all."
Now, he said, he wouldn't go back. "I have a lot more support," he said. "It helped me get my life back together."
Hunter, 50, has some idea of what his students go through. His father died when he was a toddler and he lived mostly in a single-parent household, with his mother, a waitress, knocking herself out to keep the bills paid.
A South Albany High graduate himself, class of '85, Hunter credits influential teachers and coaches who got him thinking about his future.
"I looked at my mom and I thought, do I want how hard her life is?" he remembered. "I had the option to do more than just survive."
Hunter's life experiences drew him to work with children whose lives don't guarantee success. He had been well-liked as assistant principal of West Albany High School, but when the AOS job came open, he volunteered.
He knows what it's like to live on a tight budget and miss a parent's presence. And yet, Hunter said, he can't imagine trying to cope with some of the struggles his students have seen: parenting a baby at age 16, for instance. Coping with abuse, present or past. Mental health issues. Homelessness.
"These kids challenge the most, because they've been there, done that, seen that. 'What's different about you? What's different about your school?'"
The difference is that people at Albany Options School aren't going anywhere, he answers, and they're not going to let them down.
"I tell them, 'Good day, bad day, next day — people are here to help you.'"