When Sarah Boedigheimer came to the Community Learning Program, she was on probation and in drug court.

She left Highland Park High School to come to the alternative high school in St. Paul, and two years later she says it has changed her life.

"I feel stronger as a person," Boedigheimer said. "When I came here, I didn't have many friends. I didn't have my own voice. Now, I do."

But the St. Paul School District is closing the school at the end of the school year, and although she'll be done with school by then, she's upset. "If this school closes, I feel that a lot of kids that go here would be basically stuck," she said. "This school gives you a new look at life."

The district is facing a $25 million deficit for the next school year, and the school board is mandating that the district get out of as many leased spaces as possible. Community's $300,000 annual lease is the major reason the school is being closed and its students are being moved to Gordon Parks High School, a newer, bigger alternative high school in St. Paul.

But some students and teachers at Community assert that the closing will come with a cost: Many of the school's at-risk students have cultivated supportive relationships with students and staff that they don't have anywhere else in their lives and they will struggle in a bigger school, they say.

"Lots of students here have problems outside in the world," said Ebony Eaton, 21, who came to Community after being kicked out of Minneapolis' North High School for fighting. "But when we come to school, it's like family here. We're all just trying to get it done."

According to the district, the students need not worry. They will also be supported at Gordon Parks, said Traci Gauer, who leads the district's alternative learning programs.

"It is sad 'cause it's always hard to have a school close, and we've done some really wonderful things [at Community]," she said. "But I'm optimistic that they'll find another niche."

Gordon Parks is in a new building near the intersection of Lexington Parkway and University Avenue in St. Paul. It is redoing its programming for next year, providing morning or afternoon high school classes for students so they can work, take online classes, get career training or take college courses with the rest of their day, Gauer said.

"One thing we know about students in alternative education is that they need a structure that is flexible for them, one that works with their lives," she said.

Another bonus at Gordon Parks is an on-site health clinic, run by Ramsey County.

The clinic sees about a dozen students a day for the three days a week it is open, according to Sandy Naughton, a health educator at the clinic. Students can walk in with anything from a common cold to needing immunizations or prenatal care. And it's all free.

"We've learned that if don't meet their needs today, when they walk in, we might never see them again," Naughton said.

But Community has 108 students, and Gordon Parks has 270 this year. That statistic alone is worrisome, according to Community English teacher Ellen Puff.

"The students won't be able to get as much one-on-one attention," said Puff, who pointed out that many of the students have been kicked out of more traditional high schools because they don't succeed in big-school environments.

"The kids are wonderful. They're not dumb, by any means, but they do have special behavioral considerations that require a small classroom setting," Puff said.

While Gauer says she's talked to Community students to help soothe their fears, students are Community are hoping that there is still something they can do.

"Please don't shut down my school," said Eaton, who wants to be a doctor or a nurse. "If we could do anything to save the school, I would."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460