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home : education : schools November 19, 2018

3/3/2015 1:11:00 PM
Alternative school program takes root
By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

Legendary country music maverick Waylon Jennings once said, "Every business has its system that works for 80 percent of the people who are in it. But there's always that other 20 percent who just don't fit in."

That goes for school, too. The standard classroom setting just doesn't work for everybody - and Sisters has created an alternative setting for those students who need a different approach.

The alternative program is delivered through the region-wide Heart of Oregon program and it's found a home at the intersection of Highway 20 and George Cyrus Road at the former Little Cloverdale Preschool site.

Heart of Oregon was founded in 2000 by Sisters High School counselor Dan Saraceno, and he continues to be actively involved in the program. His son Mario is now a teacher in the program.

The program is a mix of classroom work and hands-on activity through the Youth Build program of Americorps, which offers the students, ages 16-24 the opportunity to learn skills and contribute to their community through building affordable housing. There is also a summertime program of stewardship projects through Oregon Youth Conservation Corps.

Heart of Oregon requires a school district to be a partner in its endeavors. The program was operating out of Redmond, but lost its facility. Sisters Schools Superintendent Jim Golden offered a solution.

"He said, 'Hey, Cloverdale is open if you need a place to land,'" Saraceno recalled.

The students employed their construction skills to fix up the buildings where they now study.

Heart of Oregon Program Director Kara Johnson identified the students who go into the program as "young people who have been disengaged from the normal high school."

Some have difficulties fitting into the environment and/or are struggling academically. Some have dropped out. Some are looking for a track into the construction field.

Heart of Oregon reaches across the region, from Prineville and Madras into Sisters Country. Several students have entered the program from Sisters High School.

"We have kids falling off the bandwagon at Sisters High School because they're not connected," said Dean of Students Mark Stewart. "We have 15-20 percent of the students where that's not the track, that's not the avenue that fits their educational needs."

Sometimes the pace of high school is too quick, and a student falls behind.

"For a lot of kids, it's hard to dig themselves out," Stewart said.

The students in the Heart of Oregon program spend about half their time in the classroom and the other half working on houses. They seem to thrive in their new environment.

"It's a family atmosphere," said Tristan, a student from Sisters.

That atmosphere is cultivated. A cohort of students stays together through the program. There's a lot of team-building built into Heart of Oregon, on the job and in the classroom and occasionally on excursions into the Sisters backcountry.

Also, a shared experience binds the kids together.

"At some point, everybody here has had a not-so-great experience in traditional school," said Logan, another Sisters student.

The students work online, with attentive supervision and assistance from Mario Saraceno.

"It's more one-on-one," said a student named Jeven.

Jeven also finds more practical application in what he's doing in the classroom. The most obvious example of this is the use of mathematics concepts in their construction work.

The students who successfully complete the program will receive an Oregon high school diploma.

Students can apply for the program through the website at Applicants are then interviewed. Candidates then attend a series of "Mental Toughness" sessions that challenge the students to be prepared for the program's expectations.

Johnson noted that the program is looking for mentors from the community. For information on becoming involved in the program, either for students or as a volunteer mentor, contact Heart of Oregon Corps - Sisters Programs, at 541-526-1380.

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