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Anaconda students participate in Copper Academy

Alyssa Evans, 16, works on an English assignment last week at the Copper Academy, an alternative learning program within the Anaconda public school district.

Anaconda Junior/Senior High School’s Copper Academy is set to launch this fall for students interested in a more diverse, individualized learning environment.

In February, the Anaconda school board approved the Copper Academy as an alternative extension of AJSHS to help improve graduation rates and better cater to students' learning needs.

Through online coursework and in-person teaching, Copper Academy students will follow an individualized learning plan to help them reach their own goals, whether that be graduating early, specializing in a certain subject, or making up failed credits.

And in late June, some of the academy’s first batch of students were already getting used to their new alternative high school setting.

In a window-lit classroom in the easternmost wing of the L-shaped, multi-use building on West Park Avenue that will house the new academy, about 10 students sat in pairs at large tables silently working on laptop computers.

Through the Edmentum online learning program, these teens were either recovering credits they’d failed or working ahead in hopes of graduating early — some of the same goals the 20 AJSHS students accepted into the Copper Academy will be chasing this fall.

“I think the dropout rate is so high because a lot of people work and just want to get high school over with,” said future academy student Alyssa Evans, 16, of AJSHS. “The academy is a nice opportunity to help you move on and not be stuck in high school.”

Evans is working to graduate early, she explained, and plans to make progress on completing her 12th-grade-level coursework this summer and fall while working 40 hours a week as a lifeguard at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort.

As Evans went through this online coursework on a recent morning, she talked about how she liked the Edmentum program’s demonstrations, explanations, and videos because they help her better understand what she’s learning.

Evans said she didn’t like how rushed things seemed in high school and feels being able to go at her own pace is a big plus about the online learning through Edmentum that will be available at the Copper Academy.

Once Evans finishes her senior level courses this upcoming year, the AJSHS cheer captain said she plans to continue to work full time to help her save money for college and hopes to run her own business someday.

On the other side of the classroom, future Copper Academy student Hunter Browning, 16, was also working through Edmentum but for a different reason.

“I’ve had trouble in public school with the people and stuff,” Browning said. “I failed a lot of my classes last year and thought I was going to drop out of school … this was a blessing in disguise.”

Browning said he likes the more personal learning environment of the summer program, which he is excited to continue this fall as a junior at the academy.

Depending on how his first semester goes, he said he may look at rejoining the high school but finds it easier to learn in the alternative high school setting so far.

“I’m excited that I’m able to understand things more clearly,” Browning said. “I think for a lot of years students have been forced to learn one way and there weren’t a lot of (class) choices … this (the Copper Academy) will help a lot of kids who have trouble with the public school system.” 

On top of the more individualized coursework, Browning also said he’s appreciated the passion he’s seen from the teachers and administrators who have been part of getting the Copper Academy up and running.

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“The people who work here are good people with good ideas to help kids feel like they don’t have to drop out,” Browning said.

One of those people is Erin Senst, a longtime Anaconda teacher overseeing the summer program and who will work with Copper Academy students this fall.

Senst said there are over 250 courses available through Edmentum online learning, ranging from core classes and world languages to HiSET program work and college-level curriculum that Senst and her colleague Tommy Rollins will help students work through.

Senst said students will also get in-person physical education at Smelter City CrossFit next door to the academy.

“This academy isn’t for bad kids; it’s for anyone who may need an alternative learning environment,” Senst said. “I feel everyone can benefit from this program.”

Senst emphasized that the academy will run the same hours as a normal school day and have all of the same academic and athletic requirements and opportunities.

The main difference? Senst said the academy will cater to each student’s own education goals and be a small enough group size to where she and Rollins will be able to ensure students receive both the academic and emotional support they need.

“We’ll get the opportunity to get to know our students and develop a relationship with them so we can better meet their needs and have a better understanding of what they may be going through,” Senst said.

While Senst admitted the academy will be more laid back in some ways than AJSHS, she also said there will be a very strict attendance policy.

If students miss two days of class for an unexcused reason, they will be kicked out of the academy and either return to the high school or be recommended for another alternative learning option, like the Montana Youth Challenge Academy or Anaconda Job Corps.

“All we want is open communication, honesty, and respect,” Senst said of her future academy students. “They have to show they want to be here.”

On the flip side of the strict attendance and adherence to learning program policies, Senst said the academy will also implement an incentives program.

She explained that students with good attendance, behavior, and learning progress will be able to earn privileges to a communal coffee room, to wear hats, and to have their cell phones.

“The incentives program is exciting because if you give kids respect, they usually give it back,” Senst said. “We may be more laid back (at the academy), but we have high expectations.”

In the future, Senst hopes to have more teachers involved in the academy and in turn more students grades 9-12 enrolled in its diverse courses. She said she’s really excited for students to have this alternative learning environment and looks forward to helping meet all of the needs of each academy student — not just the academic ones.

“The strong relationship piece is the key to success for some students,” Senst said. “I’m really excited to help offer education to students in a different manner and hope to see the academy become a place where kids are excited to come to school.”

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