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INNOVATION IS THE RULE AT INDEPENDENCE

Some days, students at Independence High School in Provo are flat out jumping off the building.

Other days, they're out painting the town instead of sitting in class.Every day, they're calling Principal Greg Hudnall - and their teachers - by first name.

Hudnall has no problem with any of that.

In fact, he encourages it.

Kids who call him "Greg" are more likely to think of him as a friend, says Hudnall. They'll be the ones who'll come to him for advice.

And those jumping off the roof of the $4 million alternative high school are the JROTC students who've tied things into knots in class. They understand quite clearly the connection between paying attention in class and a successful rappelling experience - especially after they've looked over the side at the ground from 30 feet above it.

They've learned to trust themselves, their teachers and the dynamics at work in whatever they're attempting to do.

Whatever the circumstance, Hudnall believes Independence High School is providing a lifeline to the future for kids who've been at risk under jurisdiction of the traditional educational experience.

These are the kids who've left the traditional high schools - and junior highs - because they were way behind in class, wouldn't come to class or couldn't be managed in class. For a variety of reasons, mainstream education was not working for them.

At Independence High School with a ratio of five students to one teacher, their needs are better met.

"We're not looking at rocket scientists here but at kids who're becoming contributing members of society," said Hudnall. "We're creating lifelong learners through a holistic approach."

"Are we successful? Yeah, I think so if you measure us by the number of kids learning to deal with problems and themselves."

The percentage of kids who come to Independence and graduate is between 70 percent and 80 percent. "Twenty percent we know we can't help," said Hudnall, "Those students go through our system pretty fast."

Those who stay find an atmosphere of support and encouragement that is carefully created by Hudnall and his hand-picked staff.

"We have to help a student emotionally before we can help them academically," said Hudnall. "We do that with smaller classrooms, more one-on-one attention. We get to know each kid on a first-name basis."Independence does not house convicts, delinquents or "druggies" as some believe, said Hudnall, but is, in fact, a closed campus with strict policies against drugs, smoking and weapons on the grounds.

Students may not leave during school hours and must leave all contraband off campus. They have to want to stay in school.

"We're here to educate, not baby-sit," said Hudnall, who, at the same time, says education must be fun or he won't be a part of it.

Students who come to class, participate and work with the staff, get the chance to learn math through bowling, an appreciation for the outdoors by building a baseball diamond in Monument Valley, and enjoy the arts by attending a performance of "Phantom of the Opera" in Los Angeles.

Students are rewarded with adventures for regular attendance, good grades or just trying hard.

The latest incentive involves getting a "Coin of Excellence" for anything a teacher may notice as positive or noteworthy. Students can trade the brass coins, stamped with an Independence Lion on the back, for T-shirts, food, even a free day.

Each year, the seniors take an extraordinary trip for graduation, paid for through fund-raising projects the school takes on through the year. For most, it's their first trip out of state.

Their school days are filled with field trips and opportunities for service from a nationally recognized prom for senior citizens to painting over graffiti in local communities.

The program is working and therefore drawing attention on a state and national level, said Provo School District superintendent Michael Jacobsen.

"We have people ask all the time. It's a model for other districts," said Jacobsen.

"I know it's highly thought of and Greg is highly regarded as a leader. He's always looking for a better way to do things and yet very willing to look at options and change. He's extremely visionary. He's also completely committed to kids. That's his No. 1 priority."

Jacobsen's previous experience was with the Tooele District, which like many districts, had a tiny program housed in portable units as Independence once was.

"These facilities are so much better," said Jacobsen. "And it's big enough to have teachers certified in all the areas they're asked to teach."

Often, an alternative high school has to rely on a few teachers who must teach out of their area of expertise. Hudnall said that can really create a problem for a student faltering in math or science when he or she can't get answers based on knowledge.

Hudnall said Independence has been lucky to have a supportive administration, one that's funded the school adequately even when the numbers have fallen below expectations.

"Because of the nature of what we do, fluctuations in the economy really affect us," said Hudnall. "And it's getting so expensive to live in Provo and all of Utah County that we're losing a lot of our students."

Independence was built for 250 students. The average population is around 200 although it fell to 160 last year. Hudnall and Jacobsen would like to see it stay more stable because it helps maintain the quality staff Hudnall prizes.

To help, Hudnall has initiated a pilot program bringing in junior high students long enough to get their self-esteem up before putting them back into the mainstream.

Ideally, he'd like to see all of the educational world turn to smaller class sizes and less restrictive, "one-way" learning, but he admits that's not a realistic dream given the money available.

"We've all created an educational dinosaur that's hard to change," said Hudnall, "especially when it's working for the majority.

"Our philosophy is to provide success for the 10 percent that don't succeed in the regular channels. Independence is not for everybody, but we're essential for those who need us. And that's it. That's all we want to be."