January 28, 2010 | Cloud Cray

This year, 25 students from Orion Alternative High School attended a Calvin January Series talk.

This year, 25 students from Orion Alternative High School attended a Calvin January Series talk. The excursion was organized by their English and language arts teacher, Calvin alumna Sheri Watts.

The lecture they attended, a presentation by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, was titled “Democracy and the Internet,” but Watts wanted her students to take away more than just knowledge of social injustices concerning censorship and free access to information.

"This gives exposure to a college environment,” she said, “which hopefully encourages them to continue their education.”

Watts has been bringing her students to the January Series since she started at Orion 12 years ago, after completing Calvin’s graduate program in education. This year, she brought her English students to the Wikipedia lecture as part of a series of lessons on research. Watts said she adjusts her curriculum each year to include a speaker from the January Series, in hopes the students walk away having learned something new.

Calvin the right place to expose students to college

Watts said as a teacher it is important for her to expose her students to a college environment, and Calvin is the right place for that to happen. “Calvin doesn’t judge learners, but encourages that everyone has the potential to learn,” she said, pointing out that a very small percentage of alternative school students continue their education. She hopes that visiting Calvin once every year will inspire an “appetite for knowledge and learning” in the nearly 300 students she has brought.

Orion, which is located in Grandville, is an alternative high school—a school dedicated to students in need of an alternative to traditional education. This may be on account of social issues, struggles at home or other factors that do not allow students to participate in a traditional public school setting, Watts said. At Orion, classes are taught by subject rather than grade, creating a diverse educational environment in which Watts said the personal touch is critical to educational success. The school’s mission statement notes that Orion aims to provide a “positive, family-like environment.”

Students even call their teachers by their first names, said Orion student Blain Sloan. “Orion wants to help you; it really prepares you,” Sloan said, “The main thing is respecting differences. That’s kind of our motto.”

Showing the love of Christ

For Watts, the school is a place to put her faith into action.  “I get to show the love of Christ, which is what we are called to do,” Watts said, “I’m not afraid to just love on them.”

Students appreciate that. “Sheri’s a very loving and kind person,” said Orion student Emily Levandoski, "She doesn’t think you are who you are by how you look.”

Unfortunately, this will be the last year Watts and her students will be able to make the trip. Due to state budget cuts, Orion Alternative High School will be closing after this year. Watts does not yet know where she will be teaching next year, though she does plan to continue teaching in the public school system.

"Ultimately, my daily challenge in the public school environment is to be an ambassador for Christ,” Watts said, “I was created to serve. I serve my students, my community and my family. I want God to be pleased—teaching is my ministry.”

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