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Argus a model
Argus High School student Ana De La Torre is dabbing torn-up bits of newsprint with glue for an off-beat papier-mache project. She smiles when Argus High School Principal Jan Gordon looks at her working and reminds her how far she's come. As a habitually truant junior high student, Ana was headed toward becoming a high school drop-out. Ana now is eager to come to school.

Ana explains that she was "too lazy to get up" and liked doing her "own thing" - not coming to school at both Blaker Kinser Junior High and her freshman year at Central Valley High. The truth is, she just wasn't motivated. "But now I'm coming to school," said Ana. "When I came here the counselors supported me and came over to me and made me feel comfortable."

De La Torre is now focussed on going onto college art classes.

Hers is a success story that is an example of why, for a second time, Argus High School in Ceres has been named a 2009 Model Continuation High School. The state has officially recognized Argus because of its outstanding programs designed to help at-risk students stay in school.

The designation means that other educators in the state will be examining what Argus is doing right.

"It's one of 14 schools in the state to be recognized and that's not an insignificant thing," said CUSD Supt. Walt Hanline.

He said the percentage of students passing the California State High School Exit Exam is very good.

"They have really stepped it up academically," said Hanline. "The teachers and the school have stepped up the level of expectations on students and the students have risen to those expectations."

Gordon and her staff submitted an extensive application last summer to be considered for the honor. The state dispatched a visitation team in November that was impressed with Argus, particularly three aspects.

"They were impressed with the support we have from our district office, from textbook adoption to being a part of districtwide committees," said Gordon. "They just felt that that's not a common norm for continuation schools."

Argus' student advisory program was also noted as exceptional. "Our advisory teachers meet students once a week to keep the connections going and hopefully keep the kids in school," said Gordon. Each Wednesday they meet with each student to help them track their credits earned, test scores and graduation eligibility. They also helped with college applications as well as filling out financial aid forms.

The state team was impressed with Janelle Cimadomo's art class. Gordon said Cimadomo is a "fabulous art teacher" who been able to engage students "which has transferred to success in the other core areas."

"She connects with the students," said Gordon, "and brings their self-confidence levels up so high that they actually have done better in their core classes. We have some students who have almost straight A's in her classes and they were kids who were failing when they came here."

Students have been especially responsive to Cimadomo's emphasis on urban or street art as well as the strokes she gives.

"You'll hear me praising a lot. I'm just naturally enthusiastic about life," said Cimadomo. "A lot of praise. I show a lot of examples. Physically I'll start a project with them - they're very visual - and when they see me doing it they know it's kind of easy and I notice they're pretty independent after that."

Making students more visual aids them in other classes, such as language arts, she explained. To understand Edgar Allen Poe's work better they create posters. "It helps them visually image the story line, and they do visual aids in classroom it's easier for them to comprehend, I believe."

Argus is a true team effort, said Gordon, whose staff is an advocate for all students. Together they're trying to dispel the misconception that Argus is for trouble-makers.

"It's not what people think it is," said Gordon. "The students who come here are basically credit deficient. Behavior problems are sent to community schools... they don't come to us. It's just like a mini-high school when you look around."

Senior Brandon Ney said Argus was the answer to combat the D and F grades he was getting. Now pulling A's and B's, he's enlisted in the Army.

"Going to a normal high school just wasn't working out for me," he said. "The normal school size setting wasn't working. The way I learn is in a smaller setting because of all the distractions. The teachers here really care about you. They know you on a more personal level since there's not so many people going here."

Continuation high schools have been around in California since 1919 to serve students 16 years or older who are at risk of not graduating. They are geared toward career technical education, and use exemplary instructional strategies, offer students guidance, counseling services, and more flexible school schedules to meet their needs. Currently, more than 71,000 students in the state attended 519 continuation high schools.

Gordon will pick up the award plaque in Santa Clara at the annual California Continuation Education Association (CCEA) conference May 1-3. The statewide program is a partnership of the California Department of Education and the California Continuation Education Association.