Riki Wauchek of the Open Doors Youth Reengagement program at Lincoln High School worries that not enough people know about this opportunity.

“I want people to know about this,” Wauchek said. “I almost consider it a second chance program. A lot of our kids work full time. A lot of our kids have children. Or, they work and have children … I feel it’s important for people to know about us because there might be a lot of kids out there who have become disengaged.”

Open Doors is a state-funded program for youth 16 to 21 years of age who have dropped out of school or are not expected to finish high school before age 21.

Through Walla Walla Public Schools, the program exists at Lincoln High School and at the Opportunity Program building, an off-site learning center that’s part of Walla Walla High School.

Wauchek said the flexibility of the program makes it perfect for students who don’t have time for a normal school schedule.

“This is somewhere they can reengage, and they don’t have to spend an entire school day,” she said. “We can work around their schedule.”

Without the program at Lincoln High School, Kya LaLonde might be without a high school diploma today.

LaLonde spent her first two years of high school at Walla Walla High School, nicknamed Wa-Hi.

“I got pregnant at 16 and dropped out,” LaLonde said.

While LaLonde left Wa-Hi, she hadn’t given up on school just yet. She began studying at an online school.

“It was so much harder than going to public school,” LaLonde said. “When I actually had my son, I knew it was impossible to juggle all these things at once. I gave up and lost all motivation to go back.”

LaLonde gave birth to her son, Easton, in February 2020.

After being out of school for about a year, she got a hold of Christy Kinney, a paraeducator Lincoln High School.

“She’s the one who introduced me to the program,” LaLonde said.

LaLonde started at the Open Doors program in January of this year.

The Open Doors program provides resources and instruction for students to first earn their General Education Development qualification, or GED. The tests and pretest test, which normally cost money, are free to students taking them through the program.

Students earn high school credits for the GED tests that they take. Once they earn their GED, they can see how close they are to having enough credits to earn their high school diploma.

Then, should they wish, they can earn those needed credits through the program and receive a high school diploma through the Walla Walla School District.

This is what LaLonde, now 18, did. She finished her requirements for her high school diploma on Oct. 4, 2021.

LaLonde said being able to do much of her school work at home on her own time, while having support of teachers and staff through the program, made finishing school possible.

“The people helped me get through it,” she said. “Christy (Kinney) and Riki (Wauchek), they all communicated with me, got me more motivated to finish it.”

Still, she said that finishing school ultimately required commitment.

“I just really knew I had to get it done,” LaLonde said. “It’s an accomplishment I knew I needed, just to go to college or find a good steady job.”

Wauchek said the school administered over 400 GED tests last year. She said about 15 students graduated from the program last year and that there’s between 60-100 students in the program at any given time.

“We have capacity for more,” Wauchek said.

Lincoln High School Principal Marci Knauft said having the program on her campus is an asset to students.

“You have kids who end up being juniors and seniors who realize they aren’t going to graduate in time with their class,” Knauft said. “In the past, those kids were the ones who would stop coming and drop out of high school. And now, this program gives them hope.”

Knauft said that many students, like LaLonde, appreciate the flexibility of the program.

“The face-to-face requirement is different,” Knauft said. “We require the students to be on-site only two hours a week, which is doable for a single mom and is doable for someone who is working full time.”

Lincoln High School is also now an official testing center for the GED test, so students don’t have to leave campus to sit for the test.

At Opportunity, the Open Doors program is run a little differently. The main focus there is to get students their GED.

“We don’t do it where (students) earn their GED and then automatically start on their high school diploma,” said Tom Porter, program director for Open Doors at Opportunity. “But we’ve had some kids who got their GEDs and then came back, after we thought we were done, because the job they wanted required a high school diploma.”

He said staff is there to support whatever a student’s next step may be.

Now that LaLonde has earned her diploma, she plans to start studying at Walla Walla Community College to earn a two-year degree in business.

“I’m also interested in attending beauty school,” she added.

More information on the Open Doors program at Lincoln High School can be obtained by emailing Wauchek at ewauchek@wwps.org.

More information on the Open Doors program at Opportunity can be obtained by emailing Porter at tporter@wwps.org.

Jeremy Burnham can be reached at jeremyburnham@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Reporter

Jeremy covers education, as well as Dayton and Columbia County, for the Union-Bulletin. He graduated from Eastern Washington University in 2019 with a degree in journalism.

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