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Sat September 22, 2012
Keeping Brockton Teens on the Path to Graduation
WGBH News visited an alternative high school in Brockton, Mass., to see how the community is combating the dropout crisis. Here are some of the faces and scenes.
Being a teenager may be harder today than ever before. Today’s families are scattered, physically and emotionally. Problems escalate quickly, through instant everything: text, online, cell phones.
Schools have always been a place to thrive, and to struggle. But so much is at stake today — to learn and to set oneself up for a future — it’s crucial to get a high school diploma. Yet millions of students are not: 1.2 million students drop out of high school every year in the U.S., and 30 percent of incoming freshman never graduate. That’s why, across the nation, cities and towns are trying to get kids back in school — and to prevent them from dropping out in the first place.
In Brockton, Mass., 18-year-old Giovanni Johnson has had his fair share of struggle. He’s dropped out of high school twice.
“If I could buckle down I could just graduate,” says Johnson. “I procrastinate a lot, and you know, I can admit it. So I’m trying to change that.”
Luckily, in Brockton, students like Giovanni aren’t hopeless. Champion High School, the school Giovanni now attends, is designed to teach at-risk kids and to help them graduate. It’s not easy. Students often need remedial coursework and emotional support. And then there’s the attendance issue.
“They have serious stuff happening in their neighborhoods and in their house, and some days school isn’t on the agenda,” says Mark St. Louis, principal of Champion High School.
Brockton has several alternative programs to help students graduate: night school, online courses and even a community college program where students get a high school diploma and college credits.
“I think we started looking at the number of students who weren’t finishing and it didn’t become a statistic, it became a face,” says Susan Szachowicz, principal of Brockton High School.
Brockton High is a traditional school. With 4400 students, it’s one of the largest public schools in New England. Szachowicz says she wasn’t always a fan of alternative schools.
“I didn’t understand them,” Szachowicz says, “I think in my earliest days of teaching I wondered if someone is getting away with something. Why are kids not held to the same standards?”
But Szachowicz says her ideas evolved the longer she taught.
“You really get to know kids and they open up about circumstances and you start to realize how kids are able to put one foot in front of the other each day is amazing,” says Szachowicz. “The more opportunities we can offer to students — it's not making excuses for them. These students have to meet the same standards. Sometimes they just get to them differently.”
Szachowicz and her colleagues are now trying to identify at-risk kids before they drop out. They do this the way a business tries to get ahead: by mining data, in this case, on high school freshmen. Educators look for early-warning signs: attendance is an obvious one; so is misbehaving and bad grades. So if a freshman misses 28 days of school, gets into fights or has a D, he’s put on what’s called a whistle list.
“Now you can’t predict anybody’s life and I don’t want to sound like I’m making this pronouncement that they will never succeed,” says Szachowicz, “but the likelihood that a 16-year-old 8th-grader is going to come up to Brockton High and be successful is smaller."
Szachowicz says it’s better if the school district intervenes before students fail. But even with a whistle list, there continues to be strains and turmoil for students like Johnson. One day in September, he misses school. He says his asthma was bothering him so he stayed home and drank soup. The next day he shows up late. He wears a puffy Ferrari jacket and a hat, which a teacher tells him to take off. On his way to homeroom his career class teacher stops him and asks why he’s been missing speech class.
Johnson takes speech twice a week at Massasoit Community College in Brockton. He has already had three absences. If he gets one more he fails the class, and without it he can’t graduate. The teacher then gives Johnson a 30-day bus pass to help him get to Massasoit.
Szachowicz says students have to be responsible too. “Ultimately, when a kid is 18 we shouldn’t be driving to their house, waking them up, picking them up, driving them to school,” she says. “There needs to be, ‘I need this! I want this! I will do this!’”
If Johnson comes to class and does his work, he can graduate next year. He says he’s trying to become a better person, and work hard and make his family proud, and that being at Champion is helping him do this.
“Some of the people I know are going to be in the same place 10 to 15 years from now,” Johnson says. “I don’t really see myself being in the same place. So I try to nudge them. You could actually make a better life for yourself.”