This story originally appeared on High Country News.
Marissa Moore started her freshman year in 2015 at Montezuma-Cortez High School in southwest Colorado, just a 15-minute drive from Mesa Verde National Park. She took honors courses and regularly earned the A and B grades that her parents expected. But by that summer, Marissa’s family was struggling: Her parents were getting a divorce, and that year, her mother broke her back. At 16, Marissa was the eldest child living at home, and her responsibilities shifted from basketball, choir and honor roll to keeping house, taking care of her siblings and looking for a job. “I was depressed about my parents getting a divorce,” Marissa, a member of the Otoe-Missouri Tribe, said. “And, you know, I wasn’t able to be a kid anymore.”
Over the next two years, between working, driving to Grand Junction with her mother for medical treatments, and dealing with her own depression, Marissa missed most of her sophomore and junior years. She still wanted to attend school and get her diploma, but challenges in her personal life didn’t leave much room for a traditional path toward graduation. High school administrators told her she would turn 18 before she could earn the credits she needed for her diploma, and encouraged her to pursue her GED instead. “It took a lot of willpower to not just give up, and to start drinking with my friends or going to get high all the time. That’s how other people I know have coped,” Marissa said. “But I have siblings, and they’re watching everything that I do. If I start giving up and doing stupid things, or getting in trouble, what does that say to them?”
Instead, Marissa enrolled at Southwest Open School, where a holistic, experiential, and personal approach to education connected her with a life-changing internship in conservation. Marissa grew into a leader and began to shape a dream beyond her high school diploma: becoming a park ranger or guide at Mesa Verde National Park.
Southwest Open School, a public charter school in Cortez, Colorado, was founded more than three decades ago as an alternative for kids who weren’t thriving in a traditional education system. Nearly 90% of the kids it serves are still considered to be at-risk, but its model for hands-on, experiential learning and its commitment to emotional growth and safety have made it an increasingly popular educational choice in the Four Corners region. “In education across the country, we’re seeing the traditional model does not work,” said Southwest Open School Director Matthew Keefauver. “We need a system that recognizes that these students are human beings, and they have things that are happening outside of school.”
Students come from four districts within Montezuma County and the surrounding region, a place where 14% of the population are Native American, 13% are Hispanic or Latino and 82% are white. The student body at Southwest Open School is 30% Native American, 15% Hispanic, 53% Caucasian and 2% other ethnicity.
In Marissa’s first days there, school counselors helped her map a path to graduation. She would still need a lot of credits, and she’d have to work hard, but it was possible. Courses on emotional management and relationship-building helped her feel safe. Her depression lifted, and she got to work. “After so many times of trying so hard to be normal, and having to hide how you’re feeling, it was amazing to get to just talk about your feelings,” Marissa said. “It [her depression] got better, because everybody at SWOS really loves you.”
For some of her credits, Marissa helped manage the campus garden, and in one class project, she designed a new job: a social-media strategist for farms. In a pivotal moment, Teri Gregory, one of Marissa’s first teachers and mentors at Southwest Open School, connected her with a summer agricultural immersion program with the Montezuma Land Conservancy. She would work at Fozzy’s Farm, the MLC’s 83-acre agricultural education center, where students learn about conservation and work in teams to manage irrigation and production on the farm. “I decided to give it a chance, because it was an extra credit and it also paid a stipend, which was really helpful,” Marissa said. “I can help support my mom and two younger siblings.”
At first, Marissa couldn’t imagine being a farmer or working outside. But after days and then weeks in the fields, her confidence grew, and she became a mentor for other students.
In August 2018, at the end of her six-week immersion, Marissa was promoted. She decided to stay on as the first full-time high school intern for the Montezuma Land Conservancy. “What we’re trying to do is give people enough time and experience on the land that they feel like they’re part of it — they belong here, it belongs to them, and they belong to it,” said Jay Loschert, MLC outreach and education coordinator. “We want them to think about careers in conservation or agriculture that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”
The work at Fozzy’s, combined with the school-led field trips to other nonprofits and to national parks, helped Marissa imagine a new future. Before, she had thought about early childhood education, but her time with the Land Conservancy and at Fozzy’s shifted her interests toward conservation. “I always knew I’d be someone that youth could talk to, and I still plan on being an advocate for Native American youth, and women,” she told me. “I’d never thought of being outdoors and being a park ranger, but that’s what I’m thinking about now.”
Toward the end of June, I called Marissa while she was at home with her 13-year-old brother, Xavier, and her younger sister, Sasa Hite, 16, who now attends Southwest Open School. Marissa was getting ready for one of her last days at the farm, and Xavier interrupted to offer her lunch. “My brother thinks that he’s a chef,” Marissa said. “That’s the path he’s going to go down in the future.”
He told Marissa he’s going to go to culinary school and become famous — be the next Gordon Ramsay, a legendary British chef. “Do it,” she said. “Go further than me. I dare you.”
The next month, on a hot and sunny July 31, Marissa spoke at her graduation ceremony, which had been delayed by the pandemic. Formerly shy and terrified of public speaking, Marissa proudly mounted the outdoor stage, wearing towering stilettos and a shimmering, silvery graduation gown and matching cap. She urged her peers not to miss the moment; they should find out what they wanted, she said, and go after it.
“A completely different person is leaving this school today,” Marissa said. Then she accepted her diploma, waved to her teachers and fellow students, and walked off the stage.
Page Buono is a freelance writer based in Durango, Colorado. She received her MFA in nonfiction from the University of Arizona. @BuonoPage. High Country News is an independent magazine dedicated to coverage of the Western U.S. Subscribe, get the enewsletter, and follow HCN on Facebook and Twitter.