Willard Alternative High School Program is undergoing some self-reflection as its community poses the question: "What should alternative education look like?"
Willard began in 2001 as a "school of choice" for students who were behind in credits or who had become disconnected from school. Students are not assigned to Willard; they have to apply.
Enrollment is capped at 150 to ensure a lower teacher-student ratio. They work on a trimester schedule, though graduation requirements are the same as Missoula County Public Schools' other high schools. Students and staff are on a first-name basis.
Because Willard is a program, not a school, its graduates reflect on each student's home high school. In the past 15 years, Willard has graduated more than 1,000 students.
"We want to make sure we understand what Willard's role will be," said superintendent Mark Thane.
It's a discussion that began when Kevin Ritchlin took over as principal this school year.
He's new to the school, though not to MCPS. Before his most recent stint at a school in China, Ritchlin was a social studies teacher at Big Sky and Hellgate, and an International Baccalaureate coordinator at Hellgate.
Montana's Office of Public Instruction defines an alternative education program as "a 'restructured' academic program to serve at-risk students and operated within an accredited public school."
That's about as concrete as it gets. Each alt ed program is different from the next, in Montana and nationwide, as they take on countless forms and serve students from a variety of backgrounds.
Willard students have some similarities. Most are either credit-deficient or they have attendance issues.
"More often than not, they have not had academic success," Ritchlin said. "That emanates from a few things. I would say a large learning environment is difficult for the majority. They feel disenfranchised from the education system."
Whereas students sometimes "disappear" in larger, traditional high schools, at Willard class sizes are small and teachers have a better opportunity to individualize instruction.
Because of this environment, Ritchlin is cautious as the alt ed discussion continues.
"The thing we have to be really careful of is it's very common in education to chase the latest trend," he said. "We need to be cognizant of what we have, and what has lasting power and sustainability in this school."
Willard junior Brandon Anderson agreed: "I don't think we should change too much.
"I feel like students really have a voice in alternative education," he said. "Teachers are more willing to listen."
The discussion means partnering research-based educational models with cognitive research about how people learn. Willard staff have analyzed project-based learning, big-picture learning, competency-based education and other models. Each has pros and cons, and they're gaining steam nationwide.
"It sounds great, but does it improve learning?" Ritchlin said of considering any move to a different educational model.
Two major issues have come out of these discussions. One, that Willard usually gets students late in their academic careers – as juniors or seniors. Out of its 150 students now, 80 are seniors.
"If we get them younger, say their sophomore year, we have them for three years and we can develop student relationships," Ritchlin said. "Why are we waiting until credits are so bad or they dislike education so much?"
Two-thirds of Willard students are classified as low socioeconomic, and a third are homeless.
"It takes a lot of grit for some of these kids to even get here," he said.
"A lot of these kids feel like the roadrunner falling off the cliff."
The second issue is what happens next for Willard graduates. About 70 percent stay in the Missoula area post-high school, he said.
"We want to explore how to connect them with the community, through internships, job shadowing, dual credits," Ritchlin said.
Thane said Willard could possibly move away from trimesters to align with MCPS' other high schools.
"That constant turnover makes it hard to build a school culture," he said, noting that staying through the school year would give Willard students more opportunities for work, apprenticeships and dual enrollment.
Anderson came to Willard as a freshman, and after that first year fell in love with the school. He raved about the 15 teachers' style, and the school's "familial" environment.
"The way I see alternative education is it's a different learning experience for people whose minds work different than the majority," Anderson said. "There's time to focus on individual learning."
But over the years, Willard has had trouble shaking its stereotype as a school for "problem kids."
"Some students have come here thinking it's the easy way out," Anderson said. "It's not. Willard is for people who really care about graduating.
"We need to find a way to upgrade Willard's reputation."
The broader look at alt ed comes at the same time the 97-year-old school is planning its new building as part of the Smart Schools 2020 projects.
It was decided last fall before voters considered the $88 million elementary and $70 million high school bonds that Willard would get an entirely new building.
"It's old, drafty, but charming," Ritchlin said.
Willard was originally an elementary school, which makes it an awkward fit today for high-schoolers. And an aging building means a physical overhaul and technology upgrades are next to impossible.
"I definitely don't want Willard, with a new building, to become a traditional public school," Anderson said. "I want it to be a lot similar to this one."
MCPS has budgeted $6 million to construct a new two-story Willard. Ritchlin said the new building will go up on the current property, though it's still undecided whether the current building will be demolished and a new school built in its place, or if the new school will be built alongside the current building.
Either way, Ritchlin said what's most important is the quality of education happening inside the building, not a "fancy exterior."
"You can have a pretty building, but it's the soul of the school that matters," he said.