When Romeo Rivera walks the commencement line for Caldwell School District's Canyon Springs High School Monday, he will pick up a couple of items.
One is a diploma from Canyon Springs. The other is a photo of him in a graduation robe, taken during his first year of high school at Caldwell Freshman Academy three years ago.
Jacob Skousen, principal at the one-year school that focuses on students at risk of dropping out, took the photos at the beginning of freshman year to help them envision their own commencement. He'll be happy to hand the photos out to his former freshmen Monday.
"Sometimes saying it isn't good enough," said Skousen.
Rivera is one of 16 students - part of the first-year class of 80 who started at Caldwell Freshman Academy in 2010 - who will graduate from Canyon Springs this spring, a year ahead of the typical 2010-11 freshman.
The freshman academy is an alternative before the alternative high school. The Caldwell School District created it apart from the Canyon Springs alternative high school - which employs many of the same strategies - because ninth grade is a pivotal year when students start thinking about dropping out.
College is now in Rivera's immediate future. But going to college or graduating high school were things Rivera considered long shots when he struggled through eighth grade.
"I never knew that a life like this was going to come to me," he said.
Rivera didn't do well in reading, writing, language or math in middle school. But at the freshman academy, he found a different kind of school.
TIME FOR QUESTIONS
Class sizes are 15 students, about half the size of traditional high school classes. The school works to build a sense of community among the students and teachers. Periods are 90 minutes, not just an hour. There's plenty of time for questions.
That turned out to be a plus for Monica Villasenor, 16, another freshman academy alum who will graduate from Canyon Springs after three years of high school.
She came to the academy reluctantly, after not doing well in some classes at Caldwell High School despite what she says were efforts to turn her grades around. She struggled with math.
"I would ask too many questions," she said.
At the freshman academy, Villasenor found herself in an algebra class taught by Elizabeth Oberleitner, who took all the time Villasenor needed to get her questions answered.
"She is just a curious person," Oberleitner said. "I sat her in the front."
In fall, Villasenor will enroll at College of Western Idaho, where she has already earned nine credits. She wants to major in zoology, a field that will require its own dose of math.
"I'm glad I'm graduating early," she said. "I'm already signed up, accepted and have my courses picked out (for college)."
A LOVE FOR READING
In the less formal environment, Rivera found teachers he could talk to. He began spending time in class reading and that grew into a love for books, language and writing.
He's been carrying an astronomy book around and reading just for fun. "I got this book as a gift," he said.
And the student who struggled with eighth-grade math completed a precalculus class this year and boasts, "My whole senior year - no B's."
He's grateful the freshman academy was there to help.
"It inspired me," he said.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts