- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

FORT MORGAN, Colo. (AP) - Wiggins High School boasts fewer than 200 students, but that doesn’t mean it can’t grab the attention of national news.

Every year, “Newsweek” publishes a list of the top 500 high schools in America that serve low-income students and are “beating the odds” with their academic achievements. This year’s list placed Wiggins at number 377. It was one of six Colorado schools to make the cut, and the only one from eastern Colorado.

Wiggins students go to school in a small concrete building with white tiled floors, white walls and few frills.

Not all the roads leading to it are paved. Yet for many years this high school has attracted students and teachers from bigger towns and wealthier school districts. Its mascot, a roaring tiger, appears on T-shirts, bumper stickers and murals all over town — and not just during the football season.

Linda Epples has taught English, speech and drama at Wiggins High School for 22 years, ever since she came there for student teaching. She has never left because she likes her students and co-workers and the school’s culture of encouragement and success.

“We expect each student to graduate,” she said. “And at the junior and senior level that I teach, there shouldn’t be any question about whether you’re going to graduate. You will.”

Epples emphasizes classical literature in her classes. Right now her students are studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” in preparation for a field trip to see it performed at the Denver Centre for the Performing Arts. She is also coaching the school’s annual fall play, which she said always draws a big audience.

Wiggins school district’s efforts to raise its standards in recent years are probably responsible for the Newsweek ranking, said Casey Clay, who teaches junior and senior social studies.

“One of the things that we’ve really been trying to do as a staff here is really kind of raise our level of expectations for the students,” he said. “And one of the things that I’ve seen in my classroom is that even those students who struggle, when you raise the bar higher, they come up and they meet the challenge.”

Clay has a reputation as one of the hardest teachers in the school, because he requires college-level research papers and reading assignments from the older kids. But, he said, many students have “embraced” those assignments and even come up with their own challenges. A history club that he started has evolved into a full senior class devoted to in-depth research projects, in which students do much of the work on their own.

And teachers aren’t the only ones responsible for the school’s high standards. Tucker Teague, a 17-year-old senior in Clay’s research class, has completed his entire high school education in Wiggins, even though he lives in Fort Morgan. When he first started attending, the school wasn’t as good as it is now, he said.

“We (his graduating class) kind of got the mentality that we wanted it to be fun, and we wanted it to be a place we wanted to be instead of just being negative about everything,” Teague said. “The teachers kind of had it in the back of their head, and then the students took action and the teachers really supported it.”

The students and teachers worked together to foster school spirit and healthy competition in the classroom, which helped improve the students’ test scores, as well as giving them a sense of pride in their school, he said.

Of course, there is always room for improvement. Clay thinks Wiggins could still do better at supporting its most vulnerable students.

“Raising the bar is great,” he said. “It really brings the middle of the pack and the top students along really well and challenges them in ways they wouldn’t normally be challenged, but it does cause some frustration with some students. And I think there’s still some ways that we can bring them along too, and if we can do that, then we’ll really be rolling.”

Meanwhile, both teachers and students are proud of how far they’ve come, and pleased with the recognition from “Newsweek.”

“We have worked hard for that,” Epples said.


Information from: The Fort Morgan Times, https://www.fortmorgantimes.com/

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