Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series on plans to close the Community High School of Vermont and how the state hopes to streamline and improve services it provides to students CHSVT educates.
BRATTLEBORO -- For some young adults, Community High School of Vermont has meant all the difference in their lives.
"I wouldn't be where I am now," said Amanda Goyette. "I never would have gotten my high school diploma."
Goyette graduated from the Brattleboro campus of CHSVT in 2009, after having been told by her probation officer to attend classes there.
"I wasn't happy," said Goyette, when told to go back to school.
But now, three years later, she is grateful for being pushed to get her diploma.
"The teachers are awesome," said Goyette. "They understood me and they made school interesting and fun, not all stressed out."
Stephanie Murano, who is 21 and currently attending CHSVT, said she dropped out of school when she was 17 but went back when she got pregnant.
She first tried Vermont Adult Learning.
"I hated it," she said. "They weren't helpful. They don't have that one-on-one connection."
Youth Services told her about CHSVT.
"I love it. They help you. They care about the students."
During a CHSVT faculty meeting in January, teachers learned that the Vermont Department of Corrections was making changes to the way it educates those under its supervision -- including a reprioritization of services based on the needs of the students, an examination of the duplication of services and the transition needs of the students.
They also learned that effective July 1, the 11 street campuses of CHSVT, which are run by DOC, will be closing.
The restructuring proposal calls for combining CHSVT, Vermont Correctional Industries and Vermont Offender Work Programs, relocating street campus staff into facilities and creating "Community Transitional Instructors" to work with offenders as they are integrated back into the community from a facility.
The news was unexpected and hit teachers, students and graduates hard.
"I was dumbfounded at first," said Tod Lessard, who has been teaching at the Brattleboro campus since 2007. "I couldn't believe they are even thinking about doing something like this."
Every student he has talked to has been upset about the decision, said Lessard.
"They can't believe it. They have nowhere else to go in the community."
When they learned of the plan, many of the students made a commitment to get involved, some of them writing to or calling legislators, said Lessard.
"It's a testament to the program that they want to get involved. They have become active participants in their community and in democracy."
Katarina Rayno said she learned about CHSVT after getting pregnant.
"At the time, I was living on the couch at my dad's with absolutely no idea where my life was headed," she wrote in a letter to legislators. "I did know that, to be a better parent, I wanted a high school diploma (but) I was very reluctant to be a pregnant teen at a ‘normal' high school setting."
Youth Services directed her to CHSVT, which was able to design a schedule that fit her needs, which included doctor's appointments and sick days.
"The teachers made a whole-hearted effort to get to know each student individually and to help them realize their individual potential," wrote Rayno. "They are some of the most receptive, supportive, and compassionate people I have ever known."
She is now a Peer Outreach Worker at Youth Services and in March will begin courses to attain a nursing degree.
"CHSVT has helped me see that I am more than just another statistic, that I have potential," wrote Rayno.
Peter van Wageningen, who has been teaching at CHSVT since 2004, said the Brattleboro campus is a true community site that reaches out into the Brattleboro community and brings in its most at-risk and disaffected young people.
Van Wageningen is retiring this year, and will see his last graduation in June.
"I really care about what I'm doing, what we have done and the program we've developed," he said.
The Brattleboro site has graduated about 75 students since its first graduating class in 2007, said van Wageningen.
"It's not a huge amount, but we probably saved the state quite a bit of money, just by kids out of corrections have moved on with their lives or kids have never had to enter corrections. CHSVT is cheap by comparison."
Darah Kehnemuyi, an adjunct at the Brattleboro campus, told the Reformer all young people deserve to have an adequate education that prepares them to be contributing, responsible members of their community.
"The Community High School is able to take young people who are otherwise disengaged learners and provide them with the tools they need to be responsible adults."
In a letter to the Legislature, Danielle Southwell, the assistant director of youth development for Youth Services in Brattleboro, wrote that CHSVT is more than just a school.
"The cultural competence and compassion of the staff provides an unparalleled atmosphere where students receive not only effective educational services, but also the social and life skills that they will most certainly need to become productive, caring citizens of our community."
Southwell told the Reformer the staff at CHSVT are unusual in that they are welcoming of this population and understand the issues that the students face.
"We stress learning personal responsibility, and we stick with our students, encouraging them, helping them find their way in life," wrote van Wageningen, in an e-mail to the CHSVT faculty group.
In a letter to legislators, adjunct Robert F. Stuart wrote that some of CHSVT's students are first offenders who are on probation.
"Let's face it, whom are we servicing? Kids headed for Harvard or Yale? Absolutely not. These are kids who have been dumped on the streets by their parents and schools who come to us for help. If we are closed, where do they go? Prison?"
In Friday's Reformer: Why was the decision made to close the 11 street campuses of the Community High School of Vermont?
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.