At traditional high schools, amid distractions and large classes, some students falter. At Valley Charter High School in Modesto, those students often blossom and thrive.
The school, with about 250 students, prides itself on helping teens learn about themselves, their strengths and what they want to do later in life. Under the umbrella of the Stanislaus County Office of Education, it offers unique opportunities: travel, character education and the chance to take college courses.
"The main purpose of the school is basically to provide our students and our graduates with skills to be successful in life," said Bob Vizzolini, principal of Valley Charter.
Valley Charter is spread throughout four academies: Valley Charter High School, for grades nine and 10; Valley Business Academy, available to grades 11 and 12; Archway Academy, an independent study program open to all grades of high school; and Community Middle College Vocational Education Academy, open to grades 11 and 12. This group is able to take extra classes at Modesto Junior College.
The school is ahead of the game, technologically speaking. Each of its 15 teachers has his or her own laptop, and each classroom is equipped with a plasma TV.
The school differs in other ways, too. It does not have a traditional sports program. It does, however, have a bowling league and offers other recreational activities such as pingpong, chess and video games.
Valley Charter has other "standard" high school activities, such as dances, like prom and winter formal, student assemblies and a Grad Nite at Disneyland, plus extended foreign travel. There have been trips to Italy, France, England and Ireland.
It is an accredited high school. It was the first high school in California to be a part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Early College Initiative. The main goal of this is to compress eight years of high school and college into seven years, with students earning a year of college credit in high school.
"We always strive to improve," said Valley Charter teacher Jeff Scott. "Our main goal is to help kids. We're here for them, and we have no other reason for existence."
The school works off of a "martial arts-based" lanyard system, which all students wear around their neck. Students start off with white lanyards and end with black through improvements and achievements in academic and character development, as the school also stresses the importance of positive character traits.
Students vary in academic backgrounds and in their personal decision to go to Valley Charter.
Elise Knoll, a junior who attends MJC for some of her classes, said the school's emphasis on positive character traits has helped her succeed in her college courses.
"The sense of self themes -- responsibility, discipline, and respect -- helped me in college classes," she said. "Respect the teacher, get the homework done and don't slack off. We've applied them to school now, but we'll apply them to our career life afterward.
Others noted class sizes as an advantage of the school.
"I came here because it had really small class sizes, with hands-on learning," said Douglas Stacey, a freshman. "If you fell behind, the teachers could help you back up."
Lauren Gardow, a junior, went to Modesto's Beyer High before switching the independent study program at Valley Charter.
"At Beyer, it was really social for me," she said. "Here, it's really academic, and there's more of an attitude of 'Get your life together, figure out what you want do to, and pursue it.' Honestly, at Beyer, I didn't do so well, because for me, it was all social. I was doing poorly, so I wanted to get away from that."
Since starting Valley Charter, Lauren has gone to almost failing to getting almost all A's, and gets to earn extra credits in order to graduate sooner.
The school also prides itself in giving students individual attention and not referring to them as simply "numbers on a roll sheet."
"Our students are a like little brothers and little sisters -- family members," teacher James Parker said. "I wouldn't trade our students for other students anywhere in the district or anywhere in the world."
Students at the school feel a sense of worth as well.
Said junior Jessica Knoll: "Here, I'm treated like an individual. I have opinions and teachers listen to my opinions and they treat me like a young adult and not just like a kid."
The teachers note several success stories that have come from the school, including one in which a student came from a troubled home with very little, went to Valley Charter and truly thrived. He graduated in three years, and is now in the Army National Guard and attends college with a major in psychology.
However, they also note that he is just one of many who have left Valley Charter with a new outlook on the future.
"What I've felt fulfilling is that we see our students achieve their goals. We physically watch and participate with our students to achieve their goals," said Shaun Pelter, a teacher.
In order to apply to Valley Charter, students must complete an essay on why they want to come to the school, and their parents must fill out why they deserve to attend. Applications are accepted year-round, though if there are more students than seats, there is a lottery to decide who will enter Valley Charter.
"I think that this school is a really good one," Douglas said. "It will help you meet your goals."
Victoria Pardini is a sophomore at Modesto High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom program.