By Caitlin Switzer
MONTROSE—(November 6, 2013) It’s not always easy to tell students from teachers at Passage Charter School, a 16-year-old facility located at 703 South Ninth Street. I was reminded of this the other day, as I sat and listened, trying not to cry as 17-year-old Hanna read me an essay she had written about her own life and journey to awareness. The alternative school works with teen parents to help them complete their education, and provides child care on site in support of that goal.
Suddenly, I was a student myself—learning about what really matters from someone less than half my age.
The essay, “Alone with Yourself,” follows Hanna’s transition from cheerleader to teen mother, through drug and alcohol addictions, prescription medication troubles, and heartbreak to sheer, unadulterated triumph. Hanna will graduate ahead of schedule, and has been accepted into the University of Colorado at Denver.
“I was two years behind in school,” Hanna had told me just minutes before. “And I had a baby. I took eight months off to work, and then I decided to focus on school. I overcame drugs, and dependence on 10 different pain medications for my sciatica—I changed my diet, and I started stretching. Today, I have no problems unless I forget to work out or exercise.
“I came here as a junior,” she said, “and now I am graduating early—I have worked very hard, and I stayed after school every day last year.”
Passage Charter School teaches not only academics, but parenting skills. Both parents are welcome, though few young fathers are now enrolled.
And today, a young woman who once ditched school to play video games and hang out with friends finds herself offering parenting advice to those much older than herself.
“They are really supportive here,” she said. “They offer good advice, and help you get what you need. I know a different way to parent now, and how to stay positive. If you approach your kids in a positive way, you get more respect.”
Her son is happy, healthy and bright, she said.
“I read to him a LOT,” she said. “He didn’t ruin my life at all—this is a benefit.
“He saved me.”
Part of her own journey has been discovering the power to choose happiness, and to pursue her dreams. A lifelong, gifted writer, Hanna intends to become a Naturopathic physician, and to use her writing talent to document her own journey and explore the ideas—health, energy, sunshine and the nature of religion itself—that stir her passions. In her confident smile, no trace remains of the depression which once threatened to destroy her.
Confidence also radiates from Carmen, 18, set to graduate in December.
“I am planning to go to college, but I have a scholarship to become a CNA, so I am going work for a semester and make some extra money,” noted Carmen, whose goal is to eventually become a Physicians’ Assistant. “My baby is eight months old, and standing on the furniture.”
Though she and her partner plan to move once he enters the Coast Guard, Carmen will always carry a place in her heart for Passage Charter School, where she has attended her last two semesters.
“Oh my gosh, I love this place,” she said. “Along with academics, they teach parenting, and relationship skills. It is a good choice. Everyone here respects you, and treats you with kindness and caring. They work with our schedules—you can work and get an education while you are here.”
Passage Charter is a secondary school that serves pregnant and parenting teens (ages 14-21) in an effort to break the cycles of poverty, school failure and teen pregnancy by providing young parents with an alternative educational setting in which they can succeed. The school, which offers on-site, licensed child care for up to 18 infants and toddlers, can accommodate up to 25 students at any given time.
Former students frequently express gratitude for the program and the attention they received at Passage Charter School.
“I am proud to say that I am the first person in my immediate family that has graduated from high school and has gone on to college,” wrote one former student, Jessica, in a letter to the school. Today, Jessica is a happily married, the mother of an 11-year-old, and employed as a nurse in a local medical practice.
For Passage Charter School teachers and administrative staff, the little school is also a place lives are transformed—even their own. For “retired” Re-1J counselor Judy Lokey, the individualized teaching and myriad programs that converge here—everything from Childfind, the Nurse/Family Partnership, local counselor Anna Adams and the Montrose Regional Library Childrens’ program–bring a richness to her own life.
“I love the stimulation, and working with kids,” Lokey said. “I love being down here, and just being a part of it.”
And success here is measured in many different ways.
For Childcare Director Alaina Rogers, success means “graduating, not having a second child before you graduate, and going on to either vocational school or college.”
“This program helps students be better parents,” Lokey said. “They acquire parenting skills, and an understanding of basic child development. They learn how to increase language skills, and how to talk to children—how to provide guidance and discovery without resorting to corporal punishment. You can have a job, and still go to school here—and if you work during our childcare hours, you can bring your baby here.
“There is a lot of individualized teaching, at many different levels.”
For Erin Fields, a 16-year Passage Charter School educator and one the non-profit’s individual board members, inspiration is found not only in the work, which she loves, but in former students who are now contributing adults.
“We have students working at Homestead of Montrose, and at Willow Tree,” she said. “I love graduation, and watching the kids finish and knowing they will be able to make a living and provide for their families. I know they have overcome obstacles to get there.”
Two of Field’s proudest moments have been attending Back-to-School night at a local elementary, and realizing that four out of five parents she encountered had been her own students.
“One of our graduates is a first-year teacher this year,” Fields said, “and one graduate, now a police officer, is on our board. It is a wonderful thing—you really can’t ask for anything better than to have your former student become your boss.”
Passage Charter School operates on a budget of just $350,000 per year, and donations are welcome. Call 970-249-8066 or visit Coloradogives.org to make a contribution.