Lincoln freshmen Gerson Burgos works on his school work with his teacher Jay Oldham as the school board tours the Ombudsman alternative high school. The school helps students who are way behind on reading and math skills. / Emily Spartz-Argus Leader

Lincoln freshmen Gerson Burgos works on his school work with his teacher Jay Oldham as the school board tours the Ombudsman alternative high school. The school helps students who are way behind on reading and math skills. / Emily Spartz-Argus Leader

A new Sioux Falls alternative high school operated by a Nashville-based company already has graduated two students and almost all of its enrollment slots are filled.

The Ombudsman school, run at a strip mall at 46th Street and Western Avenue, is the Sioux Falls School District’s answer for students most at risk of dropping out.

The students generally hold jobs while attending the school for three hours each day. Far behind their peers in credit acquisition and often lacking basic math and reading skills, they learn on computers with help from on-site teachers.

Like at Joe Foss Alternative School, students can pick up graduation credits faster than at a traditional school.

But with only 25 seats for each of the three blocks of time, Ombudsman provides a smaller school environment. Ombudsman also can help students with remedial work, where Foss students must be reading at the sixth-grade level or better.

“We needed a program that could embed that basic instruction while at the same time they’re acquiring those credits to graduate,” Superintendent Pam Homan said Wednesday during a tour with the school board.

Gerson Burgos left Lincoln High School for Ombudsman one month into the school year. He worked instead of going to school last year after moving from South Carolina, and despite being 18, he is classified as a freshman.

Burgos still works at a restaurant and attends Ombudsman from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. daily with plans of graduating within two years. He wants to be an airplane mechanic.

“I want to have a better life. I don’t want to be cooking all my life,” he said.

Having grown up with parents who speak Spanish and Portuguese, Burgos said his teachers help him with his reading.

The school is a last-resort path to a diploma. Unlike some of the other 340 schools Ombudsman runs across the country, the Sioux Falls site is not for students with behavioral problems.

At $4,300 per student, Ombudsman costs the school district slightly less than what it receives in state aid.

School director Nicole Fette said students mostly work independently on their computers but also get math and English instruction from teachers.

For every student, the goal is graduating. And when they do, another student soon takes their place, referred from their high schools or Joe Foss.

“We have some students obviously who just don’t show up and get dropped, (but) we don’t sit open for very long,” Fette said.

Snapshot: Ombudsman alternative high school

Target: Students most at risk of dropping out
Where: 3817 S. Western Ave.
Enrollment: Up to 76 students attend daily in three-hour shifts, starting at 7:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
How students are chosen: Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Joe Foss administrators refer students who lack literacy and numeracy skills and are far behind in graduation credits.
Degree: High school diploma