Doors opened, Feb. 22, at the new location of the Westside Alternative High School, which recently moved to Rising Sun Baptist Church, located at 820 N. Central Ave., from its original location across the street at 839 N. Central.
The school moved to accommodate a surge of new students that the previous location could not house. School officials also hope it puts into motion the building of a new school.
The school allows students who were expelled from other schools or had previous run-ins with the law to receive their high school diplomas at an accredited institution as well as receive counseling to help reshape the path of their lives.
Wetside Alternative first opened in 1990, as the pet project of Donna Blasingame, a teacher who was the program director of the GED service at Westside Holistic Family Services (4909 W. Division St.), a community-based organization that provides counseling and community support services such as Headstart, teen outreach and HIV education.
Blasingame originally contacted Dr. Ramona Smith-Battle about her desire to start an accredited high school. Battle had the educational background and credentials to allow the two to obtain a grant from the Youth Connection Charter through funding from Chicago Public Schools.
"I was a bit skeptical at first," said Smith-Battle, who has degrees in education, criminal justice and is a licensed drug counselor. "I really wasn't sure if this was the direction I wanted to take. I soon realized that being the director of education at Westside High School was God's plan for me."
In 1999, Blasingame died tragically in an automobile accident, leaving Smith-Battle completely responsible for the running of the high school. She said her desire to give back to the community enabled her to become the type of principal who can have an impact on her students, many of whom enter the school with serious doubts about both institutions and their futures.
"The thing that separates WAHS from other schools is its camaraderie," said Smith-Battle. "It's not just business as usual with every student functioning as a faceless entity. We strive to develop them socially, spiritually and intellectually. We want to give them a sense of not only respect for themselves but for each other."
Part of the sense of camaraderie is garnered through the environment of the school, which was initially housed inside a two-story frame house. It symbolizes the school's desire to create a family atmosphere and sense of safety within its academic environment.
The school has expanded from about 39 students to 140 students in just the last few years. However, the goal is to keep the student body to no more than 150. Part of the effectiveness of the program is the way it allows students to convene in a smaller educational setting so that every student can receive an adequate amount of attention and counsel.
"There is an extensive waiting list, and it breaks my heart when I have to turn prospective students away," said Dr. Smith-Battle. "However, I know that it's my job to make these difficult decisions.
"Ultimately, my job is endlessly rewarding," she added. "Some students look at me as a mother figure for them and thank me for impacting their lives and that's when I see firsthand the value of my work."