CHARLES CITY - When Tyler Tonelli moved back to Charles City from Arizona, he decided to complete his senior year at Carrie Lane High School.
“I just like that it’s a laid-back environment,” said Tonelli, 18, of the alternative high school in Charles City which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
However, that doesn’t mean Carrie Lane is an easy way out, he said. You have to work hard and put in the effort or “you aren’t going to graduate.”
Carrie Lane got its start in 1992. Don Betts, the current director, arrived in 1995.
Before that, “I had never heard of alternative education,” Betts said. “It was a matter of learning on the fly.”
Prior to 2004 the program focused mainly on those who had already dropped out of high school.
However, “Too many were falling through the cracks that way,” Betts said.
Although Carrie Lane still attempts to reach out to and enroll dropouts, the focus has changed to getting students into Carrie Lane before they drop out of school, he said.
As a result, enrollment increased. Betts said the program used to be capped at 15 students, but that cap was lifted.
In 2008 enrollment jumped to 30 students.
Enrollment decreased somewhat between 2009 and 2011, but this year Carrie Lane has 32 students.
About two out of every three students attending Carrie Lane graduates. The school serves ages 16-21.
Students who want to attend Carrie Lane have to fill out an application and be interviewed, just as they would for a job, Betts said.
Current high school students who apply usually do so because “something’s not working” in the traditional academic setting. Those students might operate better in a smaller environment, he said.
Carrie Lane also serves young mothers who need a more flexible school schedule than the traditional high school environment offers, according to Betts.
In addition, sometimes students who drop out will realize a few years down the road that they need their high school diploma and enroll at Carrie Lane.
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Nate Shindlar, 20, was enrolled at Carrie Lane previously but left without graduating.
Now he is back because “I decided education was very important,” he said.
Students are divided into two rooms. Josh Dean teaches underclassmen while Betts teaches the seniors.
At Carrie Lane, “everything is individualized” except for a few courses all students are required to take, such as a careers class, according to Betts.
“Everyone is working at their own pace,” he said.
The students have to complete one credit every three weeks. Since the school year is divided into 12 sessions of three weeks each, this means students must complete at least 12 credits a year — just like at Charles City High School.
Some students “go way beyond the minimum” as far as how many credits they earn in a year, Betts said.
Most of the students are there all day, but if they have a job where they have to work a morning or afternoon shift, their school schedule is adjusted so they can work and still attend Carrie Lane.
The school has its own graduation ceremony, complete with caps and gowns.
“That’s a tremendous event,” Betts said.
Sometimes the students who graduate are the first in their family to make it through high school, he said.
Carrie Lane has its own student activities, such as a Thanksgiving meal, a Christmas bowling outing, an annual chili cook-off, a cookie bake-off and a senior picnic.
Carrie Lane students also produce their own yearbook.
They do community service, such as sponsoring a child from Peru so she can attend school, conducting a food drive and doing spring cleaning at the Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home and Museum near Charles City.
“We want to reconnect the kids to their community,” Betts said.