The school, which serves 22 students annually and includes environmental awareness and wilderness hikes of several weeks along with academic instruction, limped through this academic year with two-thirds of one teaching position.

Sitting in their customary circle on the floor of their strawbale schoolhouse, students of Ashland High School's Wilderness Charter School on Tuesday mourned the news that their teachers will quit in June and the program likely won't reopen in September.

The school, which serves 22 students annually and includes environmental awareness and wilderness hikes of several weeks along with academic instruction, limped through this academic year with two-thirds of one teaching position. Founder-teacher James Haim said in a letter to supporters that "budget cuts have made it impossible to continue to operate the program."

AHS Principal Jeff Schlecht said at Haim's request he asked Superintendent Juli Di Chiro for a bigger budget but was told there would be no increases in any area for the high school, which had to cut $1 million last year, impose five unpaid furlough days and release seven and a half teaching positions and four other positions.

Haim said WCS was able to operate this year because of a sizeable private donation. He teaches one course at about one-fifth pay, while his wife, Katherine Holden, teaches two sections and holds a half-time position. In addition, they volunteer at the school a combined 80 hours a month.

Haim said it was the couple's decision not to continue and that if the $40,000 cut from their budget last year were somehow restored, they would consider remaining on. Before the cuts, WCS had 1.5 positions.

Schlecht, who just received the news about the teachers quitting, said he did not make a decision to close WCS and "can't imagine Ashland High School without it. They came to me and said the staffing made it impossible to operate the program."

Schlecht said the decision makes him "extremely sad. "¦ They are wonderful, hard-working, dedicated, visionary folks. "¦ It's been such a great experience, creating an inner circle that formed this bond to passionately explore the environmental experience."

Student Max Estes, a junior, said, "I feel devastation and also gratitude I got to do this last year. There is lots of self-exploration. Alternative education is nice because it's self-driven."

WCS graduate Marjorie Gosling, now working at the school as an educational intern, said the program's demise doesn't come from anyone in Ashland, but "there's a significant reduction in alternative programs all over the country" because of other priorities.

Senior Sabina Augsburger noted, "It's such a beautiful experience and now no one's going to get it. It's so much more personal and caters to what you need to learn and want to have in your life. You start looking at people differently after hearing all their stories and how they think."

"It's unfair we're gifted with this opportunity and we don't get to pass it on," said senior Tara Borgilt, "though it's taught me so much I can pass on independently."

"I have sadness that something I believed in so much has come to an end," said Holden, "but I also know there's no way physically and emotionally to continue without the support it needs. I feel so much gratitude to be part of such an amazing program."

Haim and Holden said they have "exciting ideas" for new work and will stay in the area.

Reach freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.