By Anna Erickson

Park Rapids students are earning credits working toward graduation utilizing a new program.

The Headwaters Educational Learning Program (HELP) is an independent study diploma program serving learners from 16 to 21 years of age. The Alternative Learning Center provides individualized instruction and credits are awarded on a performance or independent study basis using a flexible schedule.

It has been a great opportunity for Brandi Benham, who is finishing up credits in order to graduate.

“As a teen mom it’s awesome,” she said. “It’s more independent and one-on-one.”

Jordan Walters is embracing the opportunity as well.

“It’s awesome. We love it,” she said. “It’s not like in a classroom with a 1-to-30 ratio. It’s 1-to-1 and I don’t feel lost.”

Lisa Coborn is the coordinator and lead teacher for the ALC.

“We have close to 30 students with 20 or so coming to the day program,” she said. “We’re juggling all sorts of coursework.”

“I’m amazed at where it’s at. Lisa has put a ton of effort into it,” said High School Principal Jeff Johnson. “Our numbers are topping where we thought they’d be.”

Students have talked to their friends and then those friends have talked to others about the program.

“We have had some great conversations with kids who need eight credits to graduate and others who need 40 and they can’t finish before they turn 21,” he said. “Those kids are steered toward the GED program.”

Students who complete their credits through the HELP program receive the same diploma as other high school graduates. ALC hours are from 9:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. This provides some flexibility for students.

“We do also have a few students who are taking courses in the high school and then come to the ALC as well,” Coborn said. “That’s something that we talk about when we set up their Continual Learning Plan. Also, ALC is not the only option. For some of them, we start them here and want them to progress to regular day school or at least start to take some classes where they can socialize some more.”

During the initial conversation, Coborn and Johnson talk to kids about possible derailers they have had along the way such as mental health issues or other barriers.

“Our goal is always to say, ‘once you get caught up, once you get here, then you can work back in to day school. We won’t just throw you in there but we want to do what we can to get you back in there and be successful,’” Johnson said. “We want to know what will help these students be successful and what the best way to learn is.”

For example, some teen moms are joining the program and need a flexible schedule.

“We have five spots available out of eight to utilize daycare provided by Mahube-Otwa,” Johnson said.

They will continue to work with students and their unique schedules.

Students have been working in the community to receive some elective credits.

“Everybody’s asking me about how they’re getting credits,” Coborn said. “They wonder how it translates to standards.”

It is set up as an independent study.

“We work with the teachers in the core areas – English, math, science, social studies – we work with their curriculums that are aligned to the scope and sequence and to the standards, of course. They tell me what’s expected,” Coborn said. “We plan it so it meets the student’s needs and also hits those standards that they need to have.”

She explains it’s not a free-for-all. Students can’t do whatever they want and receive credit.

“We want to be realistic,” Johnson said. “Maybe post-secondary isn’t in their future right away. Maybe some kind of career is.”

Some of those skills aren’t paper and pencil, Coborn added.

Coborn has been collaborating with businesses in the community.

A couple students are working with Nicole Lalum at the Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. Other opportunities will be available throughout the school year.

“They’re taking a different route to get a high school diploma,” Johnson said. “In many cases they’re doing a lot of odd things, different things to get there. It’s not easy. The collaboration that’s out there is great.”