Alfredo Valenzuela used to refuse to enroll at Caldwell’s Canyon Springs High School.
He tried other high schools in Caldwell and Vallivue, but Canyon Springs, he thought, had a bad reputation.
Valenzuela, now in first year at the alternative school, thinks he got it wrong. He’s part of a 19-student group of ambassadors trying to change the perception of Canyon Springs, inside and out.
“It’s not just bad kids here,” Valenzuela said. “We have ambition, and we have a future, too.”
Canyon Springs is a 176-student alternative secondary school near downtown Caldwell. It caters to students at risk of not graduating from high school for a range of reasons from attendance issues to missing credits to serious personal or emotional challenges. Canyon Springs operates differently than most high schools, offering smaller class sizes, more student support, and no homework. It was recognized as a “top performer” among alternative schools by the State Department of Education in 2019.
Last year, during pandemic disruptions, Canyon Springs teachers started a student input committee, asking teens what changes they’d like to see at the school.
Those changes started out physical. Teachers repainted the purple walls that made the entranceway seem dark and narrow, and started to create a “student lounge” with comfortable chairs and a TV. But staff noticed that their students were looking for an attitude change, too.
Students said they felt accepted at the school — but that the school was judged by others in the community, Canyon Springs teacher Alexandria Flemmer said. The “ambassadors” group aims to change that by making sure students feel welcome and safe at Canyon, and tackling community projects to build the school’s reputation in Caldwell.
The 19 student ambassadors were either recommended by teachers, or submitted applications to participate in the group. They work on self-led projects, aided by teachers who consider themselves mentors, more than anything.
“It’s been an absolute honor to get to work with these kids,” Flemmer said. “They have so many ideas about what they want.”
In late October, the teens organized a set of themed dress-up days, costume contest and a Halloween assembly for the school. They came in on days off to hang Halloween decorations and — to the chagrin of teachers, who told the students not to spend their own money — kept buying more decor to hang around the halls.
“I’ve never seen effort like this from students, and I’ve been here nine years,” said teacher Justin Hand.
Ambassadors feel like the assembly made their peers engage with one another in a new way. Students were shy at first, said junior Madisyn Miller, but they started to liven up with group activities, like a game of musical chairs where Canyon staff members sat in pies.
“We’re starting to become more of a community than the school was in the past,” Valenzuela said. “There’s a lot more interaction between students. I feel like that’s a huge step toward taking out that negative outlook on Canyon.”
The ambassador group wants to decorate for Christmas in a few months; maybe host a holiday fundraiser, and venture out into the Caldwell community for volunteer projects.
While the ambassador team functions like a de-facto student council, staff advisors decided not to have elections for group leaders, to avoid a hierarchy within the team.
“They’ve kind of experienced that in society. By being at Canyon, they’re at the low end of the totem pole in some of the community’s perception. We didn’t want to fit into that narrative,” teacher Missy Wheeler said.
Flemmer is starting to see students’ confidence grow within the group. One student said she wasn’t going to apply for the ambassador team because she didn’t see herself as a leader. She did join, and now she’s organizing projects and learning how to direct her peers, Flemmer said.
“It’s been incredible and surprising to see these kids, some of them that I didn’t know would step up,” she said. “We pulled them in because we thought that this would be an opportunity to create community for them, and give them a space where they felt like they could be heard.”
The ambassadors want the community to hear them, too.
Asked what message they’d share with the public about Canyon Springs, teens said:
“It’s not as bad as you’re making it seem.”
“We’re like everybody else.”
“You should get to know us — everybody knows, you don’t judge a book by its cover.”