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Originally published Sunday, March 9, 2014 at 7:18 PM

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Issaquah district may close alternative high school

The Issaquah School District is considering closing Tiger Mountain Community High School, which serves students who are looking for alternatives to traditional high schools. The plan has drawn opposition.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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Before 16-year-old Megan Vaught began attending Tiger Mountain Community High School in Issaquah, she struggled with a lot: depression, a breakup and getting hit by a car.

But on her first day at Tiger Mountain, she said, everyone was welcoming.

When it came to her birthday, her class bought her balloons and her teacher made her a cake — even though she had not told them it was her birthday.

“I wouldn’t trade this school for anything,” Vaught said.

But Issaquah School District administrators are considering closing Tiger Mountain to open a new “choice” high school.

The plan, which has drawn opposition, needs to first get the School Board’s approval and will be presented to the board in the next few months.

Tiger Mountain serves kids who are looking for alternatives to traditional high schools. The school’s registration application asks students to check off the previous experiences they have had at schools, including depression or conflict with staff.

L. Michelle, the district’s executive director of communications, said Tiger Mountain could be called a traditional alternative high school, to which students are often referred to by “comprehensive” high schools. She said about 80 kids attend Tiger Mountain.

Michelle said they want to create a school “a broader range of students will want to attend” and that will allow them to explore their interests and have internships, as well as provide a small-school atmosphere.

Details for the plan have not been completely ironed out, but the new school would provide a different academic model for students.

“We’re looking at some models and some ideas that focus much more on individual plans for students where students are kind of looking at pathways that are unique to them, that they are doing learning where they are not necessarily in the classroom,” said Paula Phelps, the district’s executive director of high schools.

Tiger Mountain, a portable school, will be moved to the Issaquah Middle School campus for the 2014-2015 academic year, regardless of whether the new school plans are approved.

If the proposal to close Tiger Mountain does go through, the school would shut down after the 2014-2015 academic year.

The property where Tiger Mountain is located now will be used temporarily for staging for construction of the new Issaquah Middle School and play space for Clark Elementary School.

The new “choice” school, if approved, would be on the site of the old Issaquah Middle School and would be open for the 2016-2017 academic year.

For the 2015-2016 academic year, Phelps said, Tiger Mountain students would get help to figure out their options, which, for some, could involve going back to comprehensive high schools. Michelle said students would continue to get support as they continue their education through their new option.

According to Phelps, Tiger Mountain offers smaller class sizes than the district’s comprehensive high schools, but the school “is not really different, drastically different, in how kids are accessing their education.”

It has similar classes on the same six-period schedule as the other schools.

The new school, if approved, would be a choice for eighth-graders planning their high-school experience, as well as students at comprehensive high schools who want a different option, according to Michelle.

“There are lots of students for which a large comprehensive high school is just not the best option,” she said. “And a lot of those kids may be getting grades that are just fine, but they’re just really not feeling connected to school. And the school’s not feeling connected to them.”

For Michelle, there is a difference between students choosing to go and sending students somewhere because they’re struggling.

She said the district’s comprehensive high schools’ principals are working to “make sure that students don’t need to leave.” She said students need to be taken care of at the comprehensive high schools instead of being sent elsewhere.

“We kind of have to get out of this idea that we need to be sending kids that are struggling somewhere else, unless they want to go,” Michelle said.

Phelps said she thinks the district must do something and that it’s more about deciding details of what the “choice” school would be.

“Something will live there for kids at risk,” she said.

But Lane Helgeson, who has been teaching at Tiger Mountain for 15 years, said he doesn’t think there will be an effective place for at-risk youth in the district if Tiger Mountain closes.

Others are worried as well. A Facebook group called “Save Tiger Mountain Initiative” has more than 290 members, and its page is filled with anecdotes from people about how Tiger Mountain has affected their lives.

Neil Schmidt, 20, is a Tiger Mountain graduate and creator of the group. He had previously attended Skyline High School for four years.

Tiger Mountain, he said, “is the most friendly, incredible group of people I’ve ever met in my life. The teachers ... they say, ‘I love you like you’re my own’ when you exit the classroom and they mean it.”

“It saves lives,” he added.

Schmidt said it’s not that he does not want the new school to be created; he said “they can’t remove the Tiger program, they need to attach the Tiger program.”

Although Tiger Mountain’s future is uncertain, Vaught said the school is her home.

“I want Tiger Mountain to be on my diploma.”

Safiya Merchant: smerchant@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2299



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