Program last chance between dropping out and diploma
By SARAH JANE KYLE
Feb. 18, 2017
FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) — Two years ago, Veronica Valdez was on her way to becoming a high school dropout.
Though she went to her core classes — math and reading — at Fort Collins High School, Valdez skipped those she didn't think were relevant to her future — physical education, home economics and humanities. She was earning credits she thought mattered but missing her other classes meant missing credits required for her to graduate.
Valdez, now 18, had three options — drop out, take an overwhelming number of classes her senior year or find a program that motivated her to succeed.
If she dropped out, Veronica would have joined the 1.7 percent of Poudre School District students who became dropouts last year. If she increased her course load, she knew she would have the same struggle as before — skipping classes because she didn't see their value.
As she tried to find motivation and another way to craft a better future, she learned about Opportunities Unlimited, an innovative program at Poudre High School funded through marijuana tax dollars. Opportunities Unlimited was created last year to help students at risk of dropping out earn their diploma, traditional GED or high-school equivalency diploma. The program also takes advantage of concurrent enrollment, which allows students to take classes at Front Range Community College for free, reported the Coloradoan (http://noconow.co/2lQxqRJ).
The program is a new approach to helping at-risk students succeed, as most alternative programs focus solely on high school diplomas. It is open to students ages 17 to 21 who have already dropped out, were on the verge of dropping out or had too few credits.
PHS Principal Kathy Mackay knew her school's graduation rate would likely take a hit when the school took on the program but felt it was the right thing to do.
PHS was one of three PSD schools to have a declining on-time graduation rate this year. Mackay said Opportunities Unlimited and ASCENT, a program that gives students an opportunity to have a free first year of college if they stay enrolled at their high school, were contributing factors.
Opportunities Unlimited enrolled 42 students last year, 18 of whom were not originally PHS students. Four students completed either their GED or diploma. Twenty-three dropped out of the program. The rest continued to this year's program.
"There wasn't a huge win for us other than helping kids avoid becoming high school dropouts — but that was a big win for us," Mackay said.
Valdez rolled in the program last year, and her new teachers and counselor gave her a much-needed "reality check" about what her future would look like without finishing high school.
"It really hits you in the face," she said. "I don't want to be a dropout. ... That was probably our greatest learning tool."
As she got further engaged in her education and future, she became more motivated to succeed. She crafted a plan to get her high-school equivalency diploma and become a dental assistant.
"I just saw a much better opportunity in life," she said.
That motivation would come in handy when she learned after joining Opportunities Unlimited that she was going to become a teen mom.
Many people suggested she go back to Fort Collins High School, which has a teen mom program, but Valdez held onto the future she saw with Opportunities Unlimited.
"I just knew I had to jump into some fast-paced steps in my life once I was pregnant," she said.
Six months ago she had her daughter, Genesis, during summer break. This fall, she returned to Opportunities Unlimited without missing any school. By the time she graduates the program this year, she'll be about halfway through earning her dental assistant certificate.
"I definitely wasn't ready to be a mom yet, but knowing that I had more of an idea of what career I wanted in life and had already taken those steps ... I felt comfortable," she said.
She is the type of student Poudre High School counselor Cassie Poncelow had in mind when pushing to create the program, which began at Poudre last year.
Poncelow was tired of "doing the same thing and expecting different results" with students at risk of dropping out. As a counselor, she knew traditional credit recovery wouldn't work for many of her students, particularly those with extenuating life circumstances.
"I just got really frustrated with the idea that we're just putting kids back in a place where they're not being successful," she said. "Let's instead get these kids some practical working skills or a certificate and get them a GED."
To support the program financially, PHS, along with Poudre Community Academy and PSD Global Academy, successfully applied for a Colorado Department of Education Student Re-engagement Grant, which is funded through marijuana tax dollars. The $309,798, distributed over three years, funded graduation coaches at Poudre Community Academy and PSD Global Academy and four staff members for Opportunities Unlimited — a graduation coach, social worker and part-time math and literacy teachers.
In its second year, 36 students are enrolled and three have completed their GED. Twelve have started GED exams this spring and are expected to finish by May. Seven have dropped out and one decided to re-enroll in traditional high school.
Eric Padia, 18, said the program is drastically changing his future. He went to five different high schools while caught in a custody battle between his mother and grandmother. The more he moved, the more he struggled to stay on track with his education.
"I couldn't concentrate," he said.
When it became clear that credit recovery wouldn't be enough to help him, he knew something had to change. That's when he learned about and enrolled in Opportunities Unlimited.
"It's a second chance, a big second chance," he said.
Without the program, he said he would probably be "working at McDonald's" or homeless.
"I'm not even kidding," he said. "I was really far behind in high school. ... My only option was to get a job or do something better."
Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, http://www.coloradoan.com