ANCHORAGE -- Troy Stringer arrived at Highland Tech High last month to start his eighth-grade year and found a very different place from Clark Middle School, where he spent seventh grade.
''My first thought,'' said Troy, 14, ''was 'Is it finished?'''
It is, though it might not seem that way to students like Troy, who are used to typical classrooms. Highland's walls -- mustard yellow, lime green, periwinkle blue -- never quite make it to the ceiling. Metal beams are exposed. Most classrooms don't have doors. There are no bells, no lockers, no regular school desks.
But some 50 Clark students have moved to this charter school because they or their parents decided it would be better than Clark. For two years running, the middle school near downtown Anchorage hasn't posted test scores and attendance rates to meet the state's definition of adequacy.
Actually, no regular Anchorage middle schools have met these standards. But because Clark mostly serves low-income families, it is the only middle school required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act to let its students go someplace else.
Ten elementary schools also had to offer students a transfer. All told, roughly 5,000 students from 11 Anchorage schools had the option to switch and about 130 students so far have done so.
The Anchorage School District had to offer students from each of these schools two other schools as options -- schools that met the adequacy definitions.
With middle schools, that presented a problem: None of the regular schools qualified.
But Goldenview Middle School in South Anchorage met the requirements during the 2002-03 school year, so the law allowed the district to offer it to Clark kids as an alternative. A handful of Clark families opted to send their kids on the long bus ride to Goldenview, but most picked the other school offered, Highland, located at the Boniface Center shopping mall. Highland has only been open one year but did OK on the tests. It now has enrolled 310 students in grades six through 11.
Highland Tech's students study basic subjects and must take state-required tests in reading, writing and math. The school's methods otherwise veer from the norm. Students complete required internships, job shadows and community service projects. Their curriculum covers communication, careers and personal, social and service skills.
It is a standards-based school, which means there are no traditional grade levels. Instead, students work at levels according to their abilities and advance to the next step at their own pace.
The program isn't right for everyone, said school principal C.J. Stiegele. Some elements might just rub some kids the wrong way. For example, students are expected to wear ''professional'' clothes -- which means no baggy pants or leggings.
There are computers everywhere in the modern-feeling school. Technology is used constantly in classes. Stiegele said the goal is to make Highland Tech feel like the workplace.
''It just goes back to that respect level,'' Stiegele said. ''That's the key piece. No bells, no cattle herding. It's not like that in the workplace, is it?''
Vanessa Stucky, 13, a returning student and eighth-grader, said Highland Tech is definitely fun. She likes that the staff members respect the students and let them work independently.
''The teachers are pretty outgoing,'' Vanessa said. ''If you have an idea, you can lay out what you want and they'll work with you. It honestly feels great to be back at school.''
Next year, Highland Tech will add classes for 12th-graders. Upon graduation, students should be ready for the workforce or college, Stiegele said.
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