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Alternative School Program in Ozarks has New Home

With the cutting of a ribbon, the new Finley River School is officially open.  But students started class there in August.  KSMU's Michele Skalicky has more.

The school, on Daniels Rd. on the south side of Ozark, houses, on average, 35 to 40 students—kids who might not have made it to graduation otherwise.

Curt Chesick, executive director of technology and communications for Ozark Schools, said it’s a school for kids who are struggling in the traditional classroom setting but who want to graduate.

"It's just a tool we use to make sure we keep all our students up to pace, give them an opportunity to succeed in an environment that they wouldn't have at a conventional school," he said.

The new building is the result of a bond issue passed last spring, he said, to alleviate overcrowding at the high school.  Part of the solution is to move ninth grade to the current junior high school building, which was where the alternative program used to be housed.  The students needed to move, and now they have a place to call their own.

"In less than two months they've made it their own building.  It doesn't look like your standard building.  It's a tighter--it's a closer knit group of kids, smaller classrooms, and the kids have personalized it. They've made it their home for the next two or three years," he said.

Dr. Frances Gooden, principal of Finley River School, said high school isn’t one-size-fits-all for her students.

"I take students for a lot of reasons.  I have 35 kids.  I have 35 different reasons why they're here.  But the one thing they have in common is they want to graduate, and they know this is their way out," she said.

Paige Rushing began attending Finley River School when she found herself pregnant while in an abusive relationship her freshman year.  She was still pregnant when she entered the program.

"Fresh from an abusive relationship.  I wasn't really in a good mental state at all, and this school just helped me in an emotional state, too, because I just had so much support and people just backing me up, a lot of resources, too," she said.

For example, Parents as Teachers works with teen parents to help improve their parenting skills.  And she said everyone supports one another.  No one judges you, she said, if you don't understand something.

"Everyone has the same problems.  We'll all here for a reason, so there's no judgment here," she said.

She’s excited they now have their own space, rather than one hallway at the junior high, complete with a school store where the sale of things like snacks and t-shirts goes back into the school.  Her design was chosen in a competition held to determine what the t-shirts would look like. 

Rushing will graduate early—at semester—and she plans to work for awhile and save money for college.  Her ultimate goal is to become an addiction counselor.

She said the school has helped her tremendously.

"I've learned a lot of things that I just couldn't comprehend at the high school because it's just so, like, a different learning.  They focus on you and your needs," she said.

Principal Gooden said students who graduate from Finley River School receive an Ozark High School Diploma. 

They’re able to succeed there because schedules and learning methods are more flexible, according to Gooden.  There’s an online program where students can work ahead or get caught up.

Curt Chesick said Ozark’s graduation rate is 97 percent.  According to Chesick, the reason it’s so high is because of programs like the Finley River School.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.