Chico High shutters West program
The once-popular smaller learning community gets the axe
In early June Chico High School teacher Kevin Dolan got a shock: a letter informing him he would be transferred to a position at Bidwell Junior High School come fall.
The transfer was totally unexpected.
“That was a blow that was not easy to take,” Dolan said during a recent interview, as he sat in his old classroom on the Chico High campus.
On top of that news, Dolan learned shortly thereafter that West, the program he has been the face of for the past 14 years, was being canceled. Dolan, a high-school English teacher for more than 30 years, joined the West program—one of Chico High’s “smaller learning communities,” or SLCs—after its first year. He came from a high school near Redding to be a part of the program.
Dolan has been struggling to come to terms with the demise of West. It’s been difficult for him to swallow for a number of reasons, and especially because he ended the last school year thinking the program would continue.
Dolan described West as a school within a school, a program that created a nurturing community or family unit. This was achieved by keeping the same group of students together for two consecutive classes—English and history. Students were required to present information in front of a panel—exhibition style—and also perform a lot of community service.
“I think it strengthens a high school, just like having a really good football team strengthens a high school,” Dolan explained. “I also think when you have labels in a high school, and those labels can range from honors, jocks, cheerleaders, ‘tree people,’ whatever, the beauty of West is that we had all those kids.”
So why get rid of it?
Chico High Principal Jim Hanlon cited a lack of interest.
“What has happened to West in the past two to three years is [that] fewer and fewer students have been signing up,” he said. “All I had was English teachers, and that is not a viable SLC. I know folks are upset with me, but the problem is that students aren’t signing up for it, and I don’t have other staff wanting to be a part of it. It has kind of run its course, like SLCs do.”
Dolan insists that, as late as May, he was told West was good to go for the fall.
His understanding was that he and fellow English teacher Maya Price would continue the program for juniors and seniors despite low enrollment. He says Hanlon made that decision at the end of the school year.
“[Hanlon] gave me my schedule. I had a West senior class with 45 students. He told me the students deserved to finish the four-year West program,” Dolan said. “We had a junior class with 41 students and we came to an agreement not to have any freshman or sophomore classes.”
In addition to leaving his beloved program behind, Dolan is now faced with the challenge of teaching a new class level.
“I have had so many people tell me, ‘Oh, those kids [at Bidwell Junior] will be so lucky,’ but I just feel like I will be teaching over my shoulder, because there has got to be a reason they would throw me into something this uncomfortable,” he said.
Indeed, rumors have been swirling that the demise of West and thus Dolan’s transfer are actually due to a personal issue between Hanlon and Dolan.
Hanlon is quick to dismiss those ideas.
“I am very careful not to make anything personal,” he said. “I try to make those decisions on what’s best for the whole school.”
Hanlon acknowledged there is a perception in the community that he doesn’t like SLCs. He says that’s not true.
“Over the years now, different SLCs have come and gone,” he said. “West has just been around so much longer than the others, and I think that’s why it is so difficult to accept [its ending].”
West students certainly are upset about it. Several recently gathered in protest at the Chico Unified School District administrative offices and the school, looking for answers. The group shouted things like “Save West!” and “We want what we were promised!”
They noted that Hanlon has not set foot inside a West classroom or been to an exhibition presentation, even after numerous invites. “We put pride in what we do, and he won’t even come see it,” said junior Lexi Lauer. “It doesn’t take long to find out how passionate we are about West.”
Meanwhile, Dolan, whom the students consider an extremely passionate teacher and mentor, is grieving the loss of a huge aspect of his life. “I have been a teacher for the past 30 years, but I have never been more alive than those last 14,” he said.