COQUILLE — Though Winter Lakes School is a booming success now, Tim Sweeney went home and threw up after its first day open when no students showed up.

“I thought I was done as the Coquille School District superintendent,” Sweeney remembered just a couple weeks before the new Winter Lakes Elementary opened to accommodate the amount of students it has now.

A contractor works outside of the future new Winter Lakes School in Coquille on Sept 17.

Winter Lakes has grown so much that the Coquille School District is scheduled to open its new Winter Lakes High School in December and has purchased the United Christian Academy for its new elementary location in August. Sweeney plans for the elementary school to start out with 75 students and grow from there, especially now that the high school is in a separate location.

“More parents might be ready to send their children to Winter Lakes Elementary since previously some had been reluctant in putting elementary students in the same building as high school students,” Sweeney said. “This time next year, I see it growing to maybe 120 students in the elementary portion.”

Sweeney took The World on a tour of the new elementary school shortly after the purchase, pointing to the large playground and field where children will finally have room to run around. At the old Winter Lakes location near the courthouse, there had just been a tiny swath of grass for recess.

“This will be 100 times bigger than the old place,” Sweeney said. “United Christian Academy did a good job maintaining things. The classrooms are bigger too.”

According to Sweeney, UCA sold the location when fewer and fewer students registered until it was no longer cost effective to run. The location has four classrooms, gym, bathrooms and even a staff room, something teachers didn’t get to have at the original Winter Lakes School.

“We will need a new roof for the gym and there will be painting that needs to be done,” Sweeney said. “We will also have to renovate to make the bathrooms ADA accessible.”

Though some significant work still needs to be done on the new elementary school, Winter Lakes is doing more than just purchasing new buildings or constructing them. Sweeney said this year Winter Lakes has a new vehicle for teachers to travel to students homes.

“We had one teacher go to Grants Pass to work with a couple students,” he said. “We think being able to go and do, meet folks where they are, is a big benefit.”

When asked what he would have done if he knew how much of a success Winter Lakes would be back when it first began, he said “I maybe wouldn’t have thrown up.”

2010 – Winter Lakes began

After Sweeney was hired as superintendent for the Coquille School District, one of the first conversations he had was how the district could better serve the students struggling to keep up in class.

“At the time, we had a large Oregon Youth Authority population because the county was housing teens in the jail,” Sweeney remembered. “We were the district serving those youth and everyone in Roseburg had canceled their program. We had a population that needed to be served in a different way and had a correctional facility we weren’t reaching well. It is how we ended up by the courthouse, though didn’t anticipate we’d lose the county part of it.”

The idea of a Winter Lakes alternative school first came up in discussion November 2010, which started the process of its creation. Sweeney said the district had a mind to serve both online and in a brick and mortar location, a physical place where students who worked best in-person could go.

Sweeney and the district began working with the Oregon Department of Education. Two ODE employees showed up, one who made the efforts his doctoral program project and the other who was the ODE coordinator at the time.

“We thought we’d serve about 40 students with 25 from Coquille, maybe 10 from Myrtle Point and five from Bandon,” Sweeney said “Through a series of events, Bandon decided not to work with us on the project.”

Though CSD worked with the Myrtle Point School District early on, MPSD later changed its involvement with the project. Instead of being a partner, it is now involved through the inter-district transfers where students are sent to CSD for Winter Lakes education.

“At the time, Winter Lakes was a unique program,” Sweeney said. “But it’s since been replicated.”

In fact, Baker Web Academy replicated Winter Lakes and other school districts now look at the program and duplicate it in their areas. Though Sweeney laughed when he said some do it better than Coquille and are getting bigger faster, but that he is “excited that we’re changing things.”

Back in 2010, the Coquille School District had 80 students enrolled with Oregon Connections Academy which translated into a huge financial burden for CSD. At the time, CSD received $5,000 a student from the state. This meant $400,000 worth of students were leaving the district to be served virtually.

“When we put (Winter Lakes) together, one of my goals and beliefs is that money generated by Oregon stays in Oregon,” Sweeney said. “Oregon tax payer dollars for education should stay in the state, but when students sign up for these online for-profit schools a big chunk of that money leaves the state.”

He pointed out that Oregon Connections Academy is actually based out of Baltimore, Maryland, meaning the $400,000 that CSD was losing out on instead went across the country.

“When we show other schools how to replicate the Winter Lakes program, it is helping school districts get their children back from the for-profit schools,” Sweeney said. “That is one of my core beliefs about all of this.”

2011 – obstacles fall in front of Winter Lakes project

In the spring of 2011, CSD hired Tony Jones as the Winter Lakes principal, someone who had previously worked as an employee with the Coos Bay School District. Jones had helped at the Harding Learning Center, CBSD’s alternative education location at the time. According to Sweeney, Jones had some concept of what Winter Lakes would look like.

“One thing people tell me is I’m a visionary and I’m not,” Sweeney said. “I take your vision and remove obstacles to make it a reality. That is my strength. We don’t let things that aren’t real hinder us from making real change.”

For Winter Lakes, its first real obstacle was money. In 2011, CSD was economically depressed and here Sweeney and Jones were trying to get Winter Lakes off the ground and into a physical location.

“We started at a place that cost $3,000 a month, which was big money back then,” Sweeney said. “We later moved to the space we have now at $600 a month.”

But before that happened, CSD went on to hire Jones as principal, a secretary, two teachers and an educational assistant. Before the doors even opened, the district had $400,000 invested into Winter Lakes.

“We thought we’d have Oregon Youth Authority money and two other partners until it collapsed,” Sweeney said. “Bandon and Myrtle Point dropped out and then the Oregon Youth Authority left too. I had this bill in front of me trying to figure out how to fund it.”

Though he was able to scrape up enough money from other parts of the district, Winter Lakes opened and saw zero students on its first day.

On its second day, a married couple walked in with their child. The mom was 17 and the dad was 19. Neither had graduated high school.

“They were our first Winter Lakes students,” Sweeney said.

The goal for 2011 was to have 50 students enrolled and by the end of the year, that goal was met.

“Alternative learners needed to be reached beyond just the Myrtle Point, Bandon and Coquille areas,” Sweeney said. “Other districts used us as alternative learning, but then something else happened. We made the decision to provide free college education through Southwestern Oregon Community College for any student who wanted it.”

2012 – rapid growth

The decision to work with SWOCC to provide college credits at Winter Lakes happened in 2012 and from there the Winter Lakes enrollment grew.

“Alternative learners are so different,” Sweeney said. “Some are parents, some are credit deficient, some don’t want to be bullied anymore and want to change location, some don’t want to do a seven-period day because it’s too much for them. Parents love the possibility of bringing them here or keeping them home.”

The option to build their own day and do classwork either at home or at school drew in the home school population.

“They were also drawn in by the college credits,” Sweeney said, but pointed out that math is becoming a barrier for parents when it comes to helping their kids with homework. “What we used to do for fifth grade math is now third grade math. It gets challenging rapidly for parents to teach at home, so then they come to Winter Lakes.”

2013 to now – enrollment boom

Between the years 2013 and 2016, Winter Lakes saw a significant spike in student enrollment.

“It felt like it happened overnight,” Sweeney said.

In 2014, the school saw 100 students. By 2016, it had 300 students.

“I felt terror,” Sweeney laughed as he looked back to the enrollment boom. “I don’t know how to budget for that or staff for that. It’s always stressful.”

At the end of the 2018-2019 school year, Winter Lakes peaked at 385 students. Some graduated and some decided not to finish out the year. Sweeney thought there would be around 300 come back for the 2019-2020 year, but it isn’t a regular system where he can see the grades move up so he never really knows.

Over the summer, he was told that enrollment was pending around 313 then 320, which is roughly what he expected. But when he was leaving town for Labor Day Weekend, he got a call that there was something wrong and enrollment was down to 206.

“It ended up as a blip because she missed one column in her spreadsheet,” Sweeney said. “But it is a rollercoaster.”

Though Winter Lakes has over 300 enrolled right now, Sweeney said that growth has spread to the rest of the district as well. Last year, Coquille High School finished the year at 325 students and now has 380 students.

“We work hard to meet all of our student’s needs wherever they are,” Sweeney said. “So many high schools say ‘this is what we do and you have to like it’ but you’ll never hear that from Coquille. We are constantly reimagining ourselves.”

Reporter Jillian Ward can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 235, or by email at jillian.ward@theworldlink.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JE_Wardwriter.