Bijou High making a name for itself

       Tucked away in an old residential neighborhood on tree-lined Walnut Street, Bijou is the high school you'd never know was there. And, in a way, it's not.
       Although Bijou High honored 22 graduating seniors last week, none of their diplomas had Bijou's name on them. Based on District 11 policy, the students' attendance-area high schools get to claim that honor instead.
        But Bijou, which offers district students a less structured way to earn a high school education, is beginning to gain autonomy. This is the first year that the state and district have designated Bijou as a school in its own right, instead of just a program. This means that for the first time the school gets to count its students' Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) scores. Also, as the district moves to a “site-based” funding program, Bijou will be better positioned to solve its own financial needs in future years.
       Another change this year was for the district to remove the word “alternative” from the school's name. That doesn't mean much in a pragmatic sense, but for Wayne Hutchison, the school's director, the change at least symbolically eliminates the impression that his school is for problem kids with “armed guards and metal detectors.” He still hears that all the time. But he has the perfect rebuttal. How can it be a bad sort of place when it has a waiting list? That's right. All of 135 Bijou's students are there by choice.
       What usually happens, according to the school's 10-year director, is that certain students find the standard high school setting - with tighter schedules, lecture-oriented classes, extracurricular activ-ites and more of a one-size-fits-all approach - just doesn't work for them. So they seek out either Bijou on the Westside or the newer Tesla school if they live out east.
        “We provide an alternative education for kids who don't fit into the mold,” Hutchison said, adding that these often include students identified as gifted. “They just need a different academic setting, with small classes and a family atmosphere.”
       How much like family? “A lot of kids don't even know my last name,” he said with a grin. It's the same for teachers.
       Other examples: Class-rooms are not divided by age groups (Hutchison has found that being around older kids helps younger ones act more mature.) Tea-chers spend less time lecturing and more in one-on-one tutoring. Students normally take just one subject at a time. Entrepreneurship is encouraged - as with the student-started Bijou Bistro that partially substitutes for not having a school cafeteria or the Mountain Springs Pottery business that even sold stocks. Grades are essentially on a pass-fail basis. Lunch-time barbecues, cooked by school staff, are regularly scheduled as morale-boosters for students who are meeting their study goals.
       This may imply a casual educational approach, but “I want to make it plain, this is not watered down education,” Hutchison said. “If anything, we're more rigorous than some schools.”
       Graduating senior Scott Limardo can attest to that. He recently received Bijou's Director's Award of Excellence, which, according to Hutchison, “is as close to a valedictorian as we get.”
       But when Limardo first took the alternative education route (starting as a seventh-grader in 1998 when Bijou School also included middle school), he had a different attitude. He said a desire for more freedom was what drove him to apply for Bijou. But his notion of freedom at that time was limited. Noticing that he was not getting nagged about turning in assignments as much as in his old school, he thought at first that was pretty cool. He remembers saying to himself, 'Wow, I could sit here and do nothing if I want.” But then he found out that if he continued that way, the school would drop him. “Oh, that's how it works,” he recalls his eiphany - so he began buckling down.
       What he gradually discovered is that “when you're self-motivated, you learn as fast as you can and you stay ahead,” said Limardo, a guitar player who has been accepted at CSU-Pueblo with a double major in mass communications and music performance.
       So how does a student get into college from a pass-fail school that can't give out its own diplomas? One of the reasons is that the “pass” needs to be at a “B” level of achievement. “C's or 'D's just don't cut it,” Hutchison said.
        The curriculum, he added, is no different than at any other District 11 high school. Forty-four credits are still needed for graduation.
       “Students work with their teachers at the beginning of the year, figuring out what they need to do to get the credits,” Hutchison said.
       After that, it's up to the kids, although he credits his teachers for often doubling as advisors in helping individual students pull their lives and work together.
       Another way school officials assist their graduates is by writing letters to the colleges, explaining how the grades were obtained and the environment where the work occurred, Hutchison said.
       Bijou grads can also point out that many of their classes included elements of real-world preparation, reflecting the school's emphasis on career development. For instance, Limardo took advantage of opportunities to become involved in both the Bistro and the pottery business and to job-shadow at two local radio stations to learn more about a potential future as a disk jockey.
       He and other students additionally are allowed to take electives at area colleges, which often can be used for both high school and college credit. One such student, Adrianne Dominguez, has been in a program that furthers her goal to become a certified medical technician. “I'm glad that the school gave me the chance,” she said.
       Brandon Dougherty, a junior, has been taking more than the required number of credits at Bijou with the idea of graduating a semester early and joining the Marines. Once less than a model student (he recalled), he has since evolved to join a group of Bijou students who work with their peers to resolve conflicts in the school.
       Hutchison thinks such success stories helped influence the decision to make Bijou into a school in its own right. Student-count issues were perhaps the main reason, but if Bijou students was not thriving, the district could have chosen to make it more of a program instead of more of a school, he speculated.
       In any case, “we feel a bit more empowered this way,” he said. “We've come a long way toward dispelling the myths about a watered-down curriculum and being a school for dummies.”
       That's not to say all of Bijou's students are perfect children from model families. Some have had tough lives and/or done things to make their lives tougher. Some are holding down jobs or caring for children. Some have gotten behind because of difficulties at “normal” schools.
       “There are lots of kids with issues,” said Hutchison, whose entire 17-year educational career has been in alternative schools. “It's hard to study math if you're hungry or you've been beaten.”
       Commented Bill Mori-shita, recently selected by students as Bijou's Diamond Award teaching winner (the first time the district- wide award has been open to the school), “If you treat them with respect, they will do fine.”
        Hutchison tries to keep it simple for his charges. “I tell them three things,” he said. “Be here on time. Work while you're here. And be nice.”
       The latter may sound naïve, but it seems to work. The last fight Hutchison could remember was at least seven years ago.
       “Everyone gets along,” Limardo said. “We have the freedom to hang out. There are no lockers, no bells.”
        “If something's not right, the students kind of monitor each other,” said Diane Ciccarelli, the school's literary resource teacher. “The older ones work with the younger ones (when they show) failing behavior.”
        The Bijou building itself is hardly a model of a modern major facility. It is old and small, the floors creak, and the library is just a room with tables and a single wall of books. Morishita, who has taught at the school at different times since the mid-'70s, recalls when the current, “main” building was once an auxiliary building for a larger structure (since torn down). Several portable buildings now handle the majority of the classrooms.
       And yet somehow, despite their school's humble circumstances and their own spectrum of backgrounds, Bijou students seem to like it. There's no grafitti, Hutchison pointed out. And a visitor can't help but notice the calm atmosphere, in some ways like a college campus.
       “The kids have a sense of pride about this place,” the director said. “They take ownership of it. That's the key to why this works.”
       And maybe one day it will lead to Bijou's own diplomas.

Westside Pioneer article