Walk through the halls of Colorado’s Finest High School of Choice on any given day, and you might hear the sounds of cowbells ringing and students cheering, along with them. That’s because as soon as a student qualifies to graduate, the staff and students, alike, make sure to celebrate them loud and proud.
The alternative education school in Englewood School District does things differently from most schools. Students call teachers and staff by their first names, and are divided into groups of 18, called “family units,” which are led by what they call a “Family teacher,” who provides both academic and social-emotional support to those who need it.
“The Family teacher is the one who is in constant contact with the student’s parent/guardian because the Family teacher’s job is to monitor progress in all classes and provide feedback,” said CFHSC principal, Dr. Bobbie Skaggs, who has been with the school in some capacity since 1995. She came on as principal about eight years ago.
Colorado's Finest School of Choice building
Students take six-week long courses, designed to keep them motivated and engaged in their work. Instead of credits or grades, students earn points for their work. 160 points represent one academic credit, Skaggs said. It takes 3,280 points to graduate, and students count down to? zero; when they no longer have points to earn, it’s celebration time. With students graduating on that rolling basis, the school accepts new students every six weeks.
While college isn’t always a student’s first choice, one of the requirements for graduation is to apply to one school.
“All of our students have to apply for a college in order to graduate,” Skaggs said. “They will often get that letter of acceptance, and think, ‘huh…. maybe this is for me.’ Not all of our students go to college right away, but it opens that door.”
The new building where Finest is housed was designed to be open and inviting, Skaggs said.
Founded in 1980, much of the foundational pieces of CFHSC are the same. No homework is required—in fact, homework is considered a privilege that students can earn over time—and the focus is on student choice.
“[One student] recently told me that the difference with Finest is that, when you come here, teachers ask you what you want to do. It’s not about the teacher telling me what I need to do and how I need to do it. They ask, ‘Who are you? These are the requirements; how do you want to fulfill them?” Skaggs said.
The biggest changes at Finest came in 2014, when they moved to a state-of-the-art facility and changed their name from Colorado’s Finest Alternative High School.
“It really was about trying to harness that choice idea,” she said. “There’s a lot of choices when you come into our school.”
But the name change was two-fold, she added, because of some of the stigma that comes with the “alternative” label.
“Our biggest challenge is overcoming this idea that alternative education is less-than, in some way, or that it is not as high quality as traditional education. That is something wefight tooth and nail all the time,” Skaggs said.
Colorado's Finest School of Choice hallway design
After 23 years at Finest, she’s used to the fight. In fact, students take pride in it, she said, and embrace the label, with hopes that someday people won’t see it with a grain of salt. Until then, though, they’re not backing down from the criticism.
“It’s a constant battle, but we’re up for it. We got this,” she said. “Bring it on.”