Kristopher Packer’s first tour of what would become Polaris High School’s western location was a lot like a before shot on HGTV.
The walls were purple and orange, there wasn’t a commons area and it would take a lot of demolition and remodeling to get the American Fork building to look like a high school.
“When I first walked through, it was one of those fixer upper shows where you are trying to see the potential in it,” said Packer, the school’s principal.
The building was remodeled and ready to see students by the first day of school last month, officially opening the doors of the Alpine School District’s second alternative school.
Polaris High School-West, located at 704 S. Utah Valley Dr. in American Fork, joins the original Polaris High School, which is located on the district’s southern side in Orem.
The western location’s 32,452-square-foot building is being leased at $382,731 a year for the first year of a three-year lease. The building has previously housed three other schools, including Aristotle Charter Academy and the Pioneer High School for the Performing Arts, both of which have closed. It was also the temporary location of the Utah Military Academy Valdez-Peterson Campus before the school moved to a permanent building in Lehi.
The district added a second Polaris High School location as a way to eliminate the lengthy car rides students on its western side faced to get to Orem.
So far, schools are responding. The western location opened with 94 students, and Packer expects it to reach about 200 students by the end of the school year. Most of those referrals are coming from Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, where Packer was previously an assistant administrator.
“Being at Westlake, I knew we weren’t referring as much because of the distance, and so this has been awesome,” Packer said.
The alternative school offers more terms, shorter classes, a smaller student body and additional one-on-one support. It does not have athletic programs or clubs, but students can use their Polaris High School student IDs to get into events at their referral schools. Packer said that gives its population the option to still get those traditional high school memories if the students want to.
The smaller environment has led to a close group of dedicated teachers who have cheered on the school’s process, like when it got its copy machine, or been onboard even with the ambiguity that comes with joining a new school.
The school looked to hire teachers who had experience in their subject areas, but also in other fields, such as mental health. The school has a social worker, a psychologist and built-in mental health support for students.
The result is a group of teachers who believe in the school’s model — and its students. At lunch, students will join students in the commons.
“We have a faculty room, but teachers have chosen to come out and sit with the students,” said Lorrie Crandall, the school’s assistant principal.
Crandall, a former school psychologist, met Packer when they were both on Westlake High School’s staff. They plan to travel to different schools in the area to educate them about the new western location and explain to students that Polaris High School isn’t second best, but could be best for them.
“We aren’t meant to replace anything, but be a great alternative for students who need that,” Crandall said.
Packer hopes the commons area, which has cafe-style seating and multiple electrical outlets, will make the school feel more like a college. The school is also trying to meet students where they are, and plans to create a mini skate park there, along with offer basketball and Spikeball. The media center will also have a gaming system and board games.
When his students make the teams at their home high schools, Packer goes to the games. He said it’s a way to celebrate the students and hopes other students try out.
Crandall said it’s one of the ways Packer shows he cares for the students. When there’s an issue with a student, she said he works to establish relationships first before addressing the problem.
“That’s totally his nature, that is totally him, and I think that is what makes him fit as the principal for this type of school so well,” Crandall said.