Nine students from the alternative Eastlake High School walked across the stage at Stargazers Theatre to accept their diplomas Thursday in the Pikes Peak region’s final winter graduation ceremony.

All had been at risk of dropping out due to multiple factors in their personal and educational lives, said Jeff Walker, dean of students.

“We pride ourselves on being available to these students, helping them overcome those risk factors,” he said.

For example, the ninth- through 12th-grade charter school authorized by Colorado Springs School District 11 provides a school psychologist and a family advocate for its 140 students.

“Once we get to know the students, we talk with them about what they need,” Walker said.

That might be bus passes to get to school and back home, clothes from a school-based “community closet” or food for kids who are hungry from the school’s food bank.

Still, alternative schools usually struggle to get kids to stay in school. Last year, out of 105 potential Eastlake graduates, only 11 got their diplomas, for a four-year graduation rate of 10.5%, according to data the Colorado Department of Education released this week. Students, though, can stay in school until they’re 21 to graduate, and the school’s six-year graduation rate increased to 26.4%.

The school holds a winter graduation in January as part of the school’s flexibility in students juggling studies with work and other commitments, Walker said. Another ceremony is held in June.

Along with other differences, finals are not the traditional exams.

Ana Rico, who graduated Thursday, took work home over the holiday break to complete her final assignments.

What she likes best about the school: “The staff always has a smile on their face, and they don’t treat you poorly.”

Also, “The teachers see your future and help you see it, too.”

Rico, 18, works for her dad’s drywall and painting company and wants to attend cosmetology school.

She struggled at a traditional high school, getting in with the wrong crowd and making bad choices that she says carry repercussions to this day.

“Every morning when you walk in here, the woman at the front desk says, ‘Good morning,’” she said. “The small things help you a lot.”

Eastlake was known as Life Skills Center until management company problems led to the system closure for schools in Colorado, Ohio and Arizona. The local school was reinvented for the 2018 fall semester as Eastlake, and relocated to where another now defunct charter school, STAR Academy, used to be near Circle Drive and Airport Road, with a similar curriculum.

After trying an online school that also didn’t work because she didn’t like sitting at her home computer for six hours a day, Ana decided to try Eastlake.

“If it’s not the right fit for me, I’m going downhill,” she said. “I was falling behind. Here, my self-confidence and everything went up, and I got the support I needed.”

Ana considered quitting school.

“I let it get in my head, but the staff believed in me and pushed me to graduate,” she said. “It means a lot to get my diploma because I can finally say, ‘I did it’ and show everyone who doubted me that I did it.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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