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Jeffco Schools

McLain welcomes all to a ‘school of hope’

Alternative high school in Lakewood looks to be community hub


The way that Chris Eberhardt, principal of Jefferson County’s McLain Community High School, sees it, his school does more than offer students of all ages an opportunity for a second chance at an education.

“We’re a kind of a Statue of Liberty for public education in the county,” he said. “We embrace the fact that students chose to be here to get an education that they might have missed, and we want to add value to every student, no matter where they are in their lives.”

McLain Community High School, 13600 W. 2nd Place in Lakewood, may look like one building from the outside, but a visit inside reveals several distinct programs.

As an alternative high school, 90 percent of McLain’s students are designated as at risk by the Colorado Department of Education. This means they might be homeless, have mental health issues, or could be “over age and under credit,” in other words, not have enough credits for where they should be in their school career.

This was the case for Braden Cotts, 17, who didn’t attend high school during his freshman or sophomore year, and tried to register as a junior.

“No school would take me, but here at McLain I was welcomed with open arms,” he said. “I’ve only been attending since the beginning of the school year here, but I really like it.”

Students like Cotts have several options at McLain.

There are two ACE (Alternative Cooperative Education) programs: The ACE and Achieve programs, which emphasize the importance of being prepared to work in addition to being college ready.

McLain also offers the LIVE program designed for students in the 9th and 10th grades with zero to four credits. McLain LIVE is an experiential, direct instruction, highly interactive alternative for students.

And that’s not all.

“Sometimes, someone’s boss will see an employee never received their high school diploma, or maybe for decades, a student has wanted to go back and finish high school,” Eberhardt said. “At our CB adult high school program, we have day and evening schedules available for those older than 18 who want to finish earning their diploma. At our adult graduation last year, our commencement speaker was 55.”

To reach students of such diverse populations and ages means doing everything possible to reduce the barriers to student attendance and success. That can mean providing counseling services when necessary and child care for parents.

“We work to help these parents become the parents they want to be for their kids, and help them do what they want to with their life,” said Katy Waskey, instructor in McLain’s Jefferson County Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting Program (JCAPPP). “We also offer some classes on parenting, and we’re looking at ways to expand these offerings to staff and other schools.”

Partnerships with service organizations and nonprofits in the community are a key component of removing barriers for students. Those include American Job Center, The Action Center, Hunger Free Colorado and the Jefferson Center for Mental Health.

“Students have access to me for free to help with their therapy needs, and I can occasionally do family sessions,” said Lorrine Zoma, a counselor from the Jefferson Center for Mental Health who works at McLain. “The most common issues I hear from students concern anxiety, depression, trauma and some substance use. It takes a lot of courage for these kids to open up.”

How long a student attends McLain depends on needs and how school fits into schedules. For some it could be a week, others a few months, and still others several years. McLain serves about 800 students a year, and it’s important to Eberhardt that their achievements are celebrated. All the programs at the school have their own graduation ceremonies, and students receive the same high school diploma they would receive at any Jeffco high school.

Staff also help students with their plans beyond high school. Jeanne Stongle, career development coordinator, helps connect students to the local business community for internships and career pathways.

“A lot of our students are interested in healthcare and construction jobs, which is great, because those areas are doing really well,” she said. “None of the business we’ve sent a student to has had the slightest complaint. They’re all such hard workers.”

Looking ahead, Eberhardt is passionate about making the school a community hub, where not only students, but also their family and friends can come for assistance with jobs, housing and any other needs. The school hosted its first McLain Community Night on Feb. 27, where everyone was invited to tour the school, meet with organizational partners and support the local business community.

“I want McLain to be a place for students of all ages to find hope, and that goes for the people in their lives as well,” Eberhardt said. “The best thing we can give to our community is a high school graduate.”

Students at McLain can tell that teachers and staff want them to succeed, as 16-year-old Nene Gardner said.

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to like any of the teachers on my first day here, but they really get to know you here,” Gardner said.

“I hope more people learn about this school, because it’s the best I’ve been to.”


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