Students at Westwood High School—an alternative school in Gillette—are starting out the new school year in a brand new building. That means more space and state-of-the-art technology—but perhaps most important—a new location. That’s because Westwood, where most students don’t see themselves as college-bound, put up its new school building smack dab on a college campus.
It still smells like fresh paint in the new Westwood High School classroom where students are giving impromptu speeches. They roll a die to determine their topic—and talk for as long as they can without saying ‘like,’ ‘um,’ or other verbal crutches.
The first topic the die lands on is “jobs”—it’s one most Westwood students should have something to say about. The majority of students here are working at least part-time—and come from low-income homes. Most have had difficulties at other high schools before landing here. Senior Matt Martin works 20 hours each week at Auto Zone. He started his high school career at Campbell County High School.
“Well, I went to South campus, dropped out first,” Martin says. “Went back to North, played football. Ended up dropping out again. Then I came to Westwood.”
Martin likes the close-knit community at Westwood. There are only 130 students here. And he couldn’t be happier with the new building.
“It’s like a future school,” says Martin. “This thing’s amazing.”
One of the perks of the new setup is that students can dual enroll and take classes at Gillette College. Martin’s just signed up to take a welding course at the college’s Technical Center—a building that sits just a parking lot away from Westwood’s new digs.
“That’s what I’m gonna be trying to get a career in when I’m older—possibly be a welder,” Martin says.
He’s one of 10 Westwood seniors taking college classes this semester under a pilot dual enrollment program. All tuition fees are paid by the Board of Cooperative Higher Education Services for the area. Students are eligible to take any class offered at Gillette College. Keeley Dimas decided on biology.
“Because biology is a big part of medical, and I plan on being a neonatal surgeon,” says Dimas. “I know my career is going to take a lot of college, so getting started early will help me as much as possible, so I thought that was great.”
Dimas moved to Gillette from a small town in Nebraska and, like Martin, chose Westwood for its size. She’s excited to take a college class but says she doesn’t know what to expect.
“I don’t have any experience on a college campus,” says Dimas. “I mean, I’ve looked at pictures up on the internet and done a lot of research on college campuses, but never actually been into a building or on the outside of a college campus.”
Now her high school is part of one. And school officials hope this proximity to higher education shifts attitudes here, even among those not enrolling in college classes.
“Every day the kids come in, they see the sign that says Gillette College,” says Kelly Morehead, Westwood’s principal. “So every day they come, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah there’s the college.’ Hoping that’s going to become second nature, that that’s where they belong.”
Morehead strolls through the halls of her 30,000 square-foot domain like a proud parent, showing off new amenities including a half-court gymnasium, daycare center, and culinary arts classroom.
She points out the “business and careers” classroom. Morehead says this is where Westwood students enrolled at Gillette College will take a mentorship class designed to help them navigate the unfamiliar world of postsecondary academics—and stay on track with coursework.
“I remember when I went to college,” says Morehead. “It’s overwhelming. And if there’s no one there to help you process through that…A lot of these kids are not only going to be first time graduates from their families of high school—and then we’re going to put them in a college class. Our goal is just to hold their hand a little bit.”
Morehead says she couldn’t be more pleased with her school’s new location, but can’t take credit for it. It was Gillette College that had been eyeing this partnership for some time.
“Putting the alternative high school, Westwood High School, on our campus had been discussed even prior to my coming to Gillette College,” says Mark Englert, Gillette College’s Vice President and CEO—who has been at the institution for five years.
He says this new partnership is a win-win.
“It certainly helps our enrollments, but it also helps us fulfill our mission in creating student success,” Englert says.
Success for students like Reagan Ritthaler She came to Westwood in 10th grade—mostly because the school had a daycare program, and she’d just given birth to her daughter, Ava. Now, she’s in her final year of school and is taking a digital photography class at Gillette College.
“I’m definitely nervous,” says Ritthaler. “Because there’s going to be a lot of older people, and I feel like I’m going to be the youngest—because I’m only 16.”
After this year, Ritthaler says she will take a year off from school to care for her daughter and get a job.
“And then, that following year, I’m going to try to get into this college, take my generals, and then I want to go to Powell, because I hear they have a really great photography class up there,” Ritthaler says.
Ritthaler sees the Gillette College class as a step towards more education—and a career. But she’s one of just 10 students taking college classes. There are 130 at Westwood, and officials here hope someday, every one of them will get a chance to see that college is within their reach.
These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen! -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.