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At Modesto's Elliott Alternative, every effort made to graduate students

Problem-solving is an Elliott Alternative High School specialty.

Modesto City Schools’ continuation high is housed at a former elementary school with few amenities. It runs classes in double shifts to accommodate about 750 students who for about 750 reasons don’t fit well at other high schools.

There are plenty of problems to solve, and Principal Julie Beebe is taking aim at them.“We have a high transient population,” she said. “They have gaps. There really isn’t a huge discrepancy in abilities. Some of them have horrific stories — every kid is their own story.”

Her husband, an instructor at Modesto Junior College, went to a continuation high school, as did her stepson.“I’m married to one of these kids,” she said. “I raised one of these kids.”

Beebe was a new face at Elliott this year.

“I wanted to come here. I begged them to let me come here,” she said.

She is adding options to help kids who have failed too many classes or missed too many days to graduate on time.

Coming next year are a fifth-year seniors program and a program to get juniors caught up and back to a regular high school for their senior year. There they can take a slate of electives, join clubs and participate in sports.

Elliott has no sports, no cheerleaders — but also none of the cliques that come with them, Beebe noted.

Even with no teams, however, having Enochs High lay claim to their mascot still rankles, many said.

“We are the Elliott Eagles. We’ve been the Eagles forever,” said longtime Elliott teacher Dolly McGrath.

McGrath next year will teach the fifth-year seniors program, an effort to get straggling students over their graduation hurdles. Jasmine Galton, 18, will be in the program. She missed too much school traveling with her younger brother for his cancer treatments. He’s doing better, and she hopes to finish with 230 credits and a regular diploma. That will help applying for scholarships toward a career in forensics, said Galton, an avid fan of “CSI” shows.

A diploma from a comprehensive high school requires 230 credits. At continuation schools, 200 are needed to graduate. Adult schools — another option at Elliott — require 170.

Those 30 or 60 fewer credits are all electives, Beebe said. Her students have to pass the high school exit exam and all the core requirements, such as math and English.

Galton worked as an aide in Cameron Sliger’s class. Sliger teaches government economics, the social science leg of a three-teacher, three core subjects team that helps students stay focused and connected he said.

“These are great kids,” he said, standing beside a wall covered with photos, military portraits and new clippings of past students.

Personal ties with teachers did help, said Christopher Perez, 19, who wears a tie over a no-collar T-shirt most days. “They actually pull you. They get on you. (At my other school) they tell you, but they don’t give you that extra push and help you out, and that’s pretty much what everybody needs,” Perez said.

Next, he’s signing up for classes at MJC. “I just proved to my entire family I can do it on my own,” he said after graduating last week.

Elliott also serves many of the district’s teen mothers.

Junior Cassandra Hernandez, 17, left the International Baccalaureate program at Modesto High and now has 4-month-old Elena Gonzalez.

“It just makes it a lot easier here. They work around everything,” said Hernandez, a GATE kid who plans to become a doctor. “This school’s a really good school.”

Seven months pregnant, graduating senior Carmela Grays, 18, said she felt more relaxed in Elliott’s teen mothers program. “The girls were nice. There was no drama at this site,” she said, adding that the class of 30 was always full.

Teacher Patty Beyer will help roll out the program for juniors, concentrating on 28 students for the year.

“We don’t have bad kids,” she said. “We have kids with missed opportunities. It’s emotionally taxing because you do care about them, especially when we lose them.”

Eight students attending Elliott died this year, she said. Some die every year.

Elliott has the most at-risk students, Beebe noted. An all-school effort keeps eyes on teens with discipline problems or gang ties. Staff know every student by name.

“We have not had a single gang fight,” Beebe said, despite the unmistakable signs of tattoos and attitude. “We watch them, but we also build those relationships,” she said.

School statistics show supervision is tight. Elliott’s expulsion rate is four times higher than other Modesto high schools, but midrange compared to other continuation high schools in Stanislaus County.

For Anna Gaskins, 18, Elliott’s more controlled atmosphere was a huge relief. At large high schools she had anxiety attacks so severe she got physically ill, she said.

Elliott teachers “never gave up on me,” she said. “They don’t treat you like just another daily thing. They always have time for you — they always make time for you.”

So true, said her mother, Denise Gaskins. “They made sure she stayed with the courses, gave her the help she needed they’re strict, in a loving way,” she said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at (209) 578-2339. Follow her at twitter.com/nanaustin.

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