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Community High celebrates 30 years

West Fargo Community High School staff members include, from left, Jessie Bixby, Michelle Ristvedt, Corene Geffre, Micky Gleason, Lisa Foulkes and Thomas Gravel. David Samson / Forum News Service

West Fargo Community High School, the district’s alternative high school, will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in a few weeks, and Corene Geffre the school’s senior-most teacher, who has taught social studies at Community High for 23 of those years has been planning an open house for Saturday, May 4, at 2 p.m.

“I have a timeline in place,” Geffre said, laughing. “Everyone has been assigned a job for the event, and it’s coming together.”

The school was created by Gerald Hagen in 1982, it was a single-room, single-teacher school at its inception and, according to Geffre, housed roughly a dozen students.

Now the school has four classrooms and teachers, offering English, math, science and social studies with a wide variety of electives within those subjects. The roughly 60 students have two classes each day, and can finish a subject in 30 days if properly motivated.

“We try to limit class sizes to 15 or fewer,” Geffre said. “I’m running 15 students working on up to 12 different subjects. Depending on how motivated you are, you can (finish a class) very quickly.”

Because multiple subjects are being studied in the same classroom at once, the Community staff cannot teach in the traditional, long-lecture style.

“If you were to walk into a classroom during the class period, you may not think anything is going on. It is so quiet,”Geffre said. “Of course, there are mini-lectures, but they are normally kept to a whisper.”

Throughout the past 30 years, the school has evolved into a strong program, especially once Coleen Bremer took over as principal in 1990.

“We’ve got the system down now,” Geffre said. “Coleen Bremer took over as principal in 1990, and with her, everything was documented, where before that it was hit-or-miss. She elevated the program to something viewed as worthy and made it a super program.”

Bremer stepped down in 2008 and Thomas Gravel has been Community High’s principal since.

According to Geffre, the majority of Community students have ADD or ADHD, but their schedule of two long classes a day does not pose as much of a problem as one would believe.

“Even though it’s a longer time that they have to sit here, they seem to do better with that than moving from class to class,”  Geffre said. “Because of the smaller numbers, we can make a number of accommodations for each individual student.”

A big setback for the school is its lack of a full-time counselor. They do have one that works half time, and very little of that counseling is on an academic basis.

“We’ve gone many years without (a counselor),” Geffre said. “Our students need more counseling. Some are high-risk students. A lot have been through some kind of counseling program and need more support than we can give.”

Without a full-time counselor, the staff ­— though untrained — has had to counsel and become involved in the lives of a number of students throughout their careers.

“We have all, as teachers, played the role of counselor,”  Geffre said. “We’ve talked students down from simply leaving. We have had deal with home situations. You become very close to these kids, and they depend on you.

“It’s a two-edged sword, because to get to that point, I have had to really get to know the students, and I have enjoyed that part. I’m not trained, but I know what their lives are like. I know what they have had to face to get here in the morning, and I get excited to see them overcome things.”

From the school’s founding, a stigma exists about its student body, but Geffre insists those views are not accurate.

“In the beginning, (the school) had a reputation of being the ‘problematic’ classes... to this day even,” Geffre said. “There are always difficult students in every school. We have ways to handle them. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I hear from parents after those first nine weeks say ‘I’m so glad this program exists.’”

Geffre is retiring at the end of the school year and claims her job takes “the right kind of person,” but has been far more rewarding than she ever expected.

“This has been my dream job, because I get so close to these kids,” Geffre said. “As ornery as kids can be sometimes, these kids are always grateful. We have the astoundingly good luck to be able to know them better. I don’t think I have taught a kid in my 23 years that has been a total loss. They all have redeeming qualities, and you have to take the time to find them. We view Community as a family, and for students it is the closest thing they have to a family. Everyone pitches in here and does their part. The kids may not like math, but they like the math teacher. They may not like science, but they like the science teacher, and they will gravitate to that person.”

The 30th anniversary event will have memorabilia and mementos on display for the public and a short program featuring a speech from superintendent David Flowers. Refreshments will be provided for those reminiscing. Past and present supporters of the program are encouraged to join.

“I hope lots of (former students) come,” Geffre said. “I can’t wait for some hugs.”