From no credits to early graduation

Chelsea Larson’s success at Woodland’s TEAM High School all about teamwork

WOODLAND — Graduating from high school early could challenge even the most academically gifted student, but for Chelsea Larson, a student at Woodland Public Schools’ alternative high school, TEAM, graduation didn’t seem to be in her future at all just a few short years ago, much less an early graduation.

Chelsea had absolutely no high school credits just two years ago when she started at TEAM. Now, she will graduate more than a year-and-a-half early, having finished her coursework already and looking to finish her volunteer hours before the end of 2019. Chelsea started at during her sophomore year, having attended more than five high schools in a single year due to a lot of family moves. 

With help from TEAM High School's teachers Jill Domingo (left) and Elizabeth Vallaire (right), Chelsea Larson will soon complete an early graduation. Photo courtesy of Woodland Public Schools
With help from TEAM High School’s teachers Jill Domingo (left) and Elizabeth Vallaire (right), Chelsea Larson will soon complete an early graduation. Photo courtesy of Woodland Public Schools

“When I first started high school, I skipped a lot of classes and just didn’t think it was important to go to school,” she remembers. “Many members in my family just got their GEDs instead of finishing high school, so I thought that was where I was headed.”

While attending Woodland High School, Chelsea was identified as needing support by Stacy Mouat, Truancy Specialist for Woodland Public Schools, and was enrolled with the Positive Academic Support System (PASS) Team where Dana Preston, a librarian and PASS staff member, told Chelsea about Woodland’s alternative high school, TEAM. 

“I’ve always had bad social anxiety, so trying to succeed in a traditional high school environment was incredibly challenging,” said Chelsea. “When Dana and Stacy told me about TEAM and helped me get started there, I decided to give it a try.”

In April 2019, Elizabeth 'Liz' Vallaire (pictured here with TEAM staff members and her family) was selected as Teacher of the Year for the State of Washington by the Association for Learning Alternatives (WALA). Photo courtesy of Woodland Public Schools
In April 2019, Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Vallaire (pictured here with TEAM staff members and her family) was selected as Teacher of the Year for the State of Washington by the Association for Learning Alternatives (WALA). Photo courtesy of Woodland Public Schools

However, Chelsea’s first year at TEAM didn’t go much differently than her years in high school. “I didn’t have all the pieces together when I started at TEAM last year,” she recalls. “I just didn’t apply myself because I was distracted by having a boyfriend and a best friend who took up my time.”

Everything changed this year when Chelsea found success through the approach to learning offered by TEAM. 

“I discovered that I could learn independently and succeed when I worked through my studies at my own pace,” she said. “Suddenly, I realized my success was all on me and it was entirely my responsibility to finish my studies; having that kind of independence makes you mature quickly.” 

Chelsea’s mom helped drive her to succeed by supporting her and motivating her at home, “When I started this year, I wanted to make my mom proud, and I finally had the time and focus to do it.”

Chelsea dedicated herself to her studies, spending many hours every day both at TEAM but also when she was home during the evenings. 

“My mom says it was the first time she ever worried I was working too hard,” she said. “In fact, my mom was genuinely concerned at times that I was going to burn myself out, but I just really wanted to succeed.”

Mouat has seen the change take place for Chelsea, especially this year. “When I first started meeting with Chelsea, she didn’t even see graduation as a reality for her,” she said. “However, Chelsea kept plugging away with her studies, going above and beyond in earning credits, and now she’s talking about going on to college.”

Mouat talked about how having support at home can really help a student succeed. “Chelsea has a very supportive mom who helped drive her success, but even then, the odds were stacked against her,” said Mouat. “Now, Chelsea is starting to see her future and is learning that there are possibilities she never even dreamed of before.”

In just a few years, the staff at TEAM have helped double the school's graduation rate. Photo courtesy of Woodland Public Schools
In just a few years, the staff at TEAM have helped double the school’s graduation rate. Photo courtesy of Woodland Public Schools

Graduating early was never a goal for Chelsea, she simply wanted to graduate at some point. “Originally, I didn’t think I was going to graduate until the end of this school year, at the earliest,” she said. “However, as I applied myself more and more, I was able to get more work done, and graduation suddenly got closer and closer.”

Chelsea attributes her success to TEAM High School’s dedicated staff and innovative approach to independent learning. 

“Coming to TEAM definitely makes you grow up quite a bit because you have to apply yourself by yourself,” she said. “However, the entire staff here is great and support their students by helping us learn how to work at our own level and at our own pace.”

Now, Chelsea has goals for her future and a plan for after graduation. 

“I definitely want to go to college, hopefully Washington State University, and I think I’d like to major in math or psychology,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to graduate ever; the complete change is surprising to even me.“

Teamwork is in TEAM High School’s DNA: Doubling the graduation rate

TEAM High School offers Woodland’s students a path to earning a high school diploma which accommodates individual life circumstances such as full-time work, challenges with traditional school schedules, or family responsibilities.

The staff of TEAM try to help people think of alternative high schools differently. “Many people hear ‘alternative school’ and think it’s a place for ‘troubled’ kids” said Elizabeth “Liz” Vallaire, TEAM’s Math and Science teacher. 

“We want to change that perception: we don’t have ‘typical’ students – we have high-achieving students; students with life responsibilities; and students whose life circumstances make TEAM’s approach to learning a better fit.”

“TEAM can be great for students because we meet them where they are academically and offer a myriad of supports and flexibility with classes to help them succeed,” said Jill Domingo, TEAM’s Social Studies and English teacher. “Since we have time to work with our students one-on-one, they share information about their work, hobbies, and home lives; I feel having that knowledge helps me be a better teacher by allowing me to adjust my instruction to fit their specific needs and learning styles.”

Over the past three years, the graduation rate at TEAM has more than doubled, a significant accomplishment any high school, particularly an alternative school. Jake Hall, Woodland’s executive director of Learning Supports and Alternatives, serves as TEAM’s principal, and commends the staff for why the school sees such great success. 

“Some of our students develop ‘learned helplessness’ from years of not being successful in school, however, our staff at TEAM works with students to show them that success can build upon success,” he said. “Students at TEAM develop self-confidence by having teachers who want them to be successful, especially some of our most discouraged students.”

TEAM High School’s teachers and staff are, quite literally, award-winning. In April of this year, Vallaire was selected as Teacher of the Year for the State of Washington by the Washington Association for Learning Alternatives (WALA).

With a relatively small enrollment – TEAM’s maximum enrollment is 100 students – the school takes on a much different feeling than larger schools. 

“We feel like a family since we all get to know each other really well, and through that we are able to build trusting relationships from all the one-on-one time we have with each student,” said Vallaire. “I believe those relationships are often part of what keeps a lot of students motivated to succeed; they know that their families, their teachers, and their peers are also invested in their success.”

Want to learn more about teaming up with TEAM?

To learn more about TEAM High School, how to enroll, or how your organization can partner with Woodland Public Schools, visit the TEAM website at www.woodlandschools.org/team

Information provided by Woodland Public Schools.

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