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Pathway Traveled To School Success
Posing with her honor graduate tassel for the Class of 2014, Ellen Degerman finished three years of high school in two by attending Connecting Waters Charter School. - photo by Marg Jackson/The Times

Before the Escalon Unified School District offered its charter school opportunities, Ellen Degerman was already on a fast track to school success.

The teen, who attended Escalon schools from kindergarten through her freshman year, decided she wanted something different to finish out her high school career. She graduated this past May, a year ahead of schedule, and also already has taken some classes at Modesto Junior College.

“I decided to just change things up,” said the focused teen, who also holds down a part-time job at the local Ace Hardware Store in Escalon. “I decided to go with Connecting Waters Charter School, to expand my horizons.”

Her older sister also did two years at the charter school, so Ellen had some prior knowledge of how it worked.

“I wanted to give it a try,” she said. “I had a sophomore year, half a junior year, then a junior-senior semester.”

The amount of work needed to finish three years of high school in two seemed a bit overwhelming at times, admitted Ellen, but she pushed through and found that being structured and disciplined was the way to go.

Connecting Waters is offered through the Waterford School District and has learning centers in Merced, Modesto and Lodi, among other sites in the Central Valley.

“It’s still a public school,” she said. “It gave me a lot of flexibility.”

That flexibility was good she added, but the requirements were just as stringent, with students needing to pass certain core courses and tests in order to receive their diploma. Students followed an independent study guide as well as occasionally meeting in a classroom setting for specific classes.

Ellen said the independent study let her make her own schedule, so she could focus on one subject at a time, perhaps doing math one day of the week, English the next, and so on.

“I had a lovely set up in my room,” she said of her ‘school’ space.

Along with focusing on the fast track for graduation, Ellen also had time to volunteer at the Escalon library, do volunteer work through Escalon Covenant Church, tutor and be tutored, and take voice lessons at Hutton’s Hamlet in Oakdale. She has also gone on missionary trips with the Escalon Covenant Church, helped out at its Harvest Festival, done Operation Christmas Child and helped with the twice-yearly Love Escalon effort.

Fond of foreign languages, Ellen attended a class in Ceres her sophomore year to learn Spanish, but also enjoys Russian and Hebrew and is currently studying Korean on her own.

“A friend introduced me to the Korean pop culture while I was still in high school and I want to go to Korea someday,” she said.

Escalon now has its own charter school up and running and Ellen said she is excited for that possibility for students.

“It’s still a new school but I’m definitely happy they have that option,” she said. “One of my friends is going to be doing that.”

As far as the toughest part of the charter school experience, Ellen admitted it was a bit difficult juggling three extra classes during the ‘junior-senior’ semester so she could finish early.

“Ellen definitely embraced it,” mom Cheryl said of the challenge. “She was so self-motivated; she made sure she was on time with everything.”

Life lessons were also learned, said the teen.

“There was a lot of flexibility in my daily schedule,” she explained, “but I still had deadlines so I couldn’t procrastinate.

“You can’t escape high school without learning you can’t procrastinate.”

Ellen had to pass the California High School Exit Exam, which she did with flying colors, and said her school also was a testing site. She also completed the required physical education component and was able to be one of the performers at her graduation ceremony, singing for the audience that included her own family and friends and those of her fellow graduates. Longtime local educator Carol Adams served as Ellen’s Education Specialist, helping her through the Charter School process.

“She was the go-between between Ellen and her teachers,” Cheryl explained.

Ellen also offered thanks to her mom for getting her to those classroom courses around the valley when needed, noting that was before she got her own driver’s license. Now, she uses her part-time job to help pay for her car insurance and gas. She ended up having her driver’s test the same week as her finals, so was glad when summer came and she could slow down and take a breath.

Headed to college next, she is in a special program at MJC to help with the transition from high school to college.

“They help you get a direction,” she said of the program. “I’ll be figuring out my major.”

Her initial classes will include English, Speech-Communications, Drawing and the College Skills course, as she decides what field she wants to enter. And though charter school might not be for everyone, it definitely was what Ellen was looking for to solidify her educational experience.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” she said.