For the 12 students who took their seats in the “WHS Annex” in December of 1999, school was about to become an experiment.
That first dozen students had been learning in what was then Whitefish’s new alternative school — created as a solution to rising drop-out rates — by following an individualized curriculum that allows learning at different speeds for different kids.
Twenty years later, and the school is still going strong as the Whitefish Independent High School is celebrating its anniversary on Friday, Dec. 6.
Originally the school was housed in the building on the corner of Pine Avenue and Seventh Street, and in 2015 the independent school moved to the south end of the Whitefish High School when the new building opened.
The school caters to about 25 students, all of whom must apply to get in, for an individualized learning experience that contrasts the more traditional approach seen in the high school. The school currently has students both in the highest and lowest ends of the learning spectrum, and also offers a “swinging door” policy where students can take electives or certain prioritized classes in the regular high school during their time as an independent student.
In its earliest days, founder and then special education teacher Bill Roche says the school was just about helping students who were left behind learn at their own pace.
“We were losing a lot of kids, a lot of kids go in their freshman year, make it halfway through their sophomore year, and then they’d find themselves at a credit deficit saying, ‘I’m never going to make it out of here.’ And then they quit,” Roche said. “So we looked at it wondering what we could do about that.”
Together with teacher’s aide Karen Cordi, the school took shape. Originally the school was called either the WHS Annex or just the alternative school. At some point along the way, Cordi said, the students started calling themselves the Independent School.
The name reflects the sentiments of the students, she said.
“The first students, they hated the high school. They would not come over there for anything,” she said. “When we set the school up we really felt like it had to be separate from the high school, because the kids didn’t have any success there. [At the high school], they were losers, in their minds anyway, so we made it separate and the kids just loved that.”
Now the school is often referred to as “Indo,” and the students who sit at its desk are “Indos.”
Cordi said early on, she and Roche looked for a sense of legitimacy from other teachers in the district, reaching out to them for help with the curriculum and for their recognition of what they were doing.
“[Roche] thought it was really important for the teachers here to see we weren’t slacking,” she said. “So he had a science, math, history and English teacher come up with the curriculum just so they knew we weren’t making it easy.”
The changes in the last 20 years reach past just the name.
For one, the school has doubled in size, from 12 to now 25 students.
The way the students learn has also changed with technology. Currently, students follow a software program called Odysseyware, a student-paced learning platform created for students in grades 3 through 12.
“The curriculum has changed, just evolved with the technology,” Cordi said. “The first progress reports I hand wrote, and now it’s all on the computer.”
The customized digital learning piece is crucial, Al Hammel said. An English teacher at the main high school, Hammel also teaches at the independent school alongside Cordi and Jill Weigland.
While the learning is individualized and tailored to the students, Hammel says the experience is not any easier than that of a student at the main high school.
In fact, he said, it might be harder.
“In high school, you could fail a test and pass a couple more and everything always averages out. You could skip a test or assignment because you didn’t want to do it, or skip a question because you didn’t feel like getting to it,” he said. “At the Independent School, you have to do every single question in every single assignment and you have to pass every one. By doing that, it builds that accountability, and it’s different than just getting you a high school diploma — it builds something different.”
The learning experience can seem to imitate the real world outside of school, he said, and that’s the point.
“You can’t fail here. You could not earn credit, you could not graduate, but you cannot fail,” he said. “Isn’t life kind of that way? You always get a chance to brush yourself off, you can always pay back your debt, you can always get a different job — but you can’t run away from your problems. That’s, I think, our most unique difference, the way we build our online platform to build that sense of responsibility.”
Despite the different style, Hammel says the content is the same. The students have the same credit requirements as students in the main school, and they receive the same diploma at the end of it all.
There are some quirks, like how the independent students receive credits in one-eighth increments for each quarter, rather than in halves, or how they’re all required to take Jobs for Montana Graduates, a career-readiness program.
The classroom space is also different. Larger than a normal classroom, it’s split into sections with very obviously different purposes. In one corner is a computer lab, and on the opposite end of the room, a kitchen. Then there’s a classroom space, with spaced-out tables and desks, and the room has its own bathrooms as well. They don’t hear the high school’s announcements unless it’s an emergency, and they don’t have to get up and move at the ring of a bell.
The west wall of the Independent School’s classroom is covered in pictures of students who have graduated from the school, a testament to an experiment in learning that found success.
When asked whether they thought the school would make it 20 years when it first began, Roche said yes, that was the intention, while Cordi laughed at the fact that she herself made it 20 years.
But for them both, the best part of the school has been working with students.
“You get that student that comes in and slouches, makes no eye contact, nothing,” Cordi said. “And we have them for a year or two, and they look you in the eye, they know how to talk to you. It’s just watching them come out of that shell knowing that what they say, what they feel, what they believe, it’s important.”
“Being here becomes an honor,” Hammel adds. “There’s that piece of, ‘I got in, and this is my place. And people are waiting to get in.”