Ali Ham, Science Teacher, Ferguson High School
Ali Ham has known she wanted a career in science since she was very young.
“My whole life was science,” Ali recalls, explaining how she spent her years in college exploring different science careers. She had wanted to be a veterinarian for as long as she could remember, but after working as a nurse’s assistant, she realized that although she loved interacting with patients, and loved the science and health aspects, she wanted to be able to work more with people.
That’s when she decided on a career in teaching. She started her student teaching at a middle school, but quickly realized that middle school wasn’t her passion, so she asked to be moved. She was placed at an alternative high school and immediately knew she had found the place she was meant to be.
“Before that, I didn’t even know what an alternative high school was,” Ali says. “But my heart will always be with alternative. There’s something about the vibe that I don’t think you could reproduce on a larger scale.”
Ali has taught science and health at Ferguson High School for four years and she says the unique population at the school is what makes it so special to her.
“My favorite thing about these kids is that they are so real,” she explains. “They want the truth and they want you to be a real person back to them. Most of them, even though they aren’t adult age, they’re already adults.”
Ferguson is designated as an Alternative Education Campus by the Colorado Department of Education, which means that at least 90 percent of the students are identified as at-risk.
“We get a bad rap in the community sometimes of having the ‘bad kids,’ but they’re not bad kids at all,” Ali says. “I love working at FHS so much, it’s hard to put into words. It’s a magical place with these kids. Many of them never really felt heard or seen at their other schools. Our school feels like one big family.”
Ali says that the smaller school size (FHS keeps its population at around 120 open-enrolled students) gives her the opportunity to not only teach her students, but to get to know them as well.
“Most of these kids have trauma in their background. I don’t usually know what that background is, but I know they have a story or they wouldn’t be here,” she says. “When I do learn their stories, whatever they may be, they impress the heck out of me that they even show up every day. Even as an adult, if I were going through half the stuff they’re going through, I would find it challenging to show up to work every day.”
But Ali says it’s the challenging backgrounds of her students that makes them so incredible to work with.
“Because these kids are so amazing, once they know you care, they will do anything for you,” she says. “I don’t ever let them tell me they can’t do something. There’s no ‘I can’t’ or ‘I don’t’ or ‘I won’t.’”
Ali’s style of teaching also involves giving her students as much real-life experience as possible, which may be why, in non-COVID years, she is known as the “fieldtrip queen.”
“I love it when I can take them out of the classroom and show them the things they are learning about,” Ali says. She often takes her students to the Colorado State University cadaver lab to learn about anatomy and says the firsthand learning provides something for her students that she can’t teach them in a regular classroom.
But providing these kinds of opportunities for her students often involves some creativity and Ali is committed to doing what it takes. Despite not having any formal grant-writing experience, Ali has pursued – and successfully secured – several grants for her school, including a Thompson Education Foundation grant for Chromebooks which was later doubled by OtterBox, and getting a grant from Noosa for nutrition and wellness classes.
“One of my biggest beliefs is that students should be informed. I want them to make healthy lifestyle choices,” she explains. “I really want them to gain real-life skills and to think through any situation that’s thrown at them. I want them to know where to find accurate information and how to use that information in a way that will actually help them.’”