Lopez High recognized as 'a model school'

Tribune photo by Jayson Mellom

There’s no place to hide at Lopez High School in Arroyo Grande.

With small class sizes, individual attention and a close-knit atmosphere, Lopez is unique in the Lucia Mar Unified School District for a reason: It’s often its students’ best chance to finish high school.

“Lopez is a school for students who are determined to finish high school, not drop out,” said Cathy Dahl-Kunkel, who has taught there since 1975. “We’re a drop-in school.”

It’s also a place where the principal knows the students by name and can be found sitting across from them at lunch, catching up.

Recently, the high school was recognized as a model school by the California Department of Education, which sponsors the program in cooperation with the California Continuation Education Association. The program recognizes schools that provide “exemplary programs to at-risk youth through the use of innovative instructional strategies, flexible scheduling, and guidance and counseling services.”

The CCEA, which represents the interests of the more than 500 continuation high schools in the state, coordinates visits to schools with successful applications. It takes into account numerous factors when designating model schools, including leadership, curriculum, testing data, and goals and direction.

“It’s very prestigious for a school to be considered a model school,” said Jacie Ragland, education programs consultant for the Department of Education. “It provides a lot of credibility to what the school is doing.”

The school will receive the award on May 2 during the annual CCEA convention in Los Angeles, Dahl-Kunkel said.It’s the third time Lopez has been designated a model school. It was also honored in 2000 and 2007.

“For me, it’s a chance to publicly validate what I know is already going on … that this is an exemplary school, that we’re doing a great job for our kids,” Principal Christine Granados said.

Students go to Lopez for various reasons: They cut too many classes, they don’t have enough credits, Lopez’s classroom hours fit better with their schedules, or they were “aimlessly wandering” at the traditional high school they had attended and found a good fit with Lopez, Granados said.

Josh Damian, 17, was behind in credits when he came to Lopez. He had moved around a lot, he said, attending high school in Modesto as well as Arroyo Grande.

“I felt different when I walked in here,” said Damian, who serves as a student representative, sometimes attending school board meetings to report on Lopez’s activities. He plans to attend Cuesta College and wants to become a kindergarten teacher. “I overcame my shyness here. I used to be the shyest person, and I came here and they broke me out of my shell.”

Sometimes the students transfer back to the two “traditional” high schools in the South County district — Arroyo Grande and Nipomo high schools — after they are caught up in the number of credits needed to graduate.

Others choose to stay and graduate from Lopez. The school has about 180 students; its graduating class varies from as few as 55 to as many as 90. About 85 percent of students who stay at Lopez graduate, Granados said.

Tori Turner, 18, is on track to graduate this year. She came to Lopez because of truancy problems and now wants to become a sign-language interpreter.

“You get more one-on-one attention with teachers,” she said. “I’m not truant here.”

The school, like others in the district, faces a cut to its staff. One teacher may be laid off, leaving seven at the school. The school’s one counselor also received a layoff notice, which may leave students with a half-time counselor who would likely be shared with another school, Granados said.