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Alyssa Daschle thought graduating with the Central High School Class of 2010 was beyond her reach several months ago. She considered dropping out of high school.

Alyssa was so far behind that even finishing was questionable. “I felt it was basically impossible to finish high school,” she said.

She might have given up, except for her determination — and a state law requiring her to stay in school until she turned 18.

After months of hard work, 18-year-old Alyssa will put on Central High School’s red cap and gown and graduate June 6.

“I’m going to be the first in my family to graduate,” Alyssa said. “My family is ecstatic.”

A year ago, dropping out of high school was an option Alyssa could have legally taken. Until last summer, teens were permitted to drop out at age 16. Beginning July 1, 2009, the state law changed, requiring teens to stay in school until they are 18. The law applies to students who were enrolled in school beginning Sept. 1, 2009.

The Legislature passed the law in 2007, but delayed its implementation until July 1, 2009, to allow schools and families time to prepare.

South Dakota was the 18th state to say that students must stay in school until age 18. Now, 19 states require students to stay in school until age 18.

“The issue of compulsory attendance is a tough issue because you need to make sure you have resources and different avenues to work with at-risk kids,” Wade Pogany of the state Department of Education said.

With the advance notice, schools have managed to step up and provide options for these students, Pogany said.

And predictions of upheavals caused by keeping reluctant students in school have not materialized, Pogany said. “We don’t hear of schools being turned upside down.”

Schools have found a variety of ways to adapt education to address the needs of at-risk students, Pogany said. Specifically, there are more programs to help them.

“We’ve seen a real growth of resources and time in educational programming,” Pogany said.

Two years ago, schools statewide offered about 60 different types of alternative education programs. Now, there are more than 80 diverse approaches, including specialized classrooms and larger academy programs, Pogany said.

Schools recognize the importance of finding ways to help students who have fallen behind academically in high school to recover those lost credits.

Alyssa’s freshman year in high school started well. She took school seriously, earning good grades, but things began to change. Her attitude toward school relaxed. Homework didn’t get done. She was working, often until after 10 p.m., started oversleeping and skipping school. She fell behind. The pattern continued her second year.

Before Alyssa realized it, she was about to enter her third year of high school and had only six credits. For junior status, Alyssa needed 11 credits.

Suddenly, she realized that catching up was going to be hard.

“I was so behind I thought there was no way to catch back up,” Alyssa said. “It was so overwhelming.”

Alyssa considered dropping out of high school and completing the General Education Development — or GED — program tests. “I

didn’t want to be in my 20s and still in high school,” she said.

The GED program consists of five tests covering math, social studies, writing, reading and science. A GED certificate confirms that the recipient has high school level skills in those subjects.

A 2009 change in the compulsory attendance law permits 16- and 17-year-olds to enroll in a GED-preparation program rather than attend high school. Rapid City’s GED-prep program is one of 12 in the state.

More than 176 students enrolled in Rapid City’s GED-prep program this year,

according to Sharron Lewellyn, a teacher at the district’s Career Learning Center. Lewellyn said she believes the GED program is not well understood. The tests demand skill and background knowledge. It’s a good program that is helping teens move on with their lives, she said.

Teenagers studying for the GED must pass sub-tests before they can begin the GED tests. Lewellyn said some of the students she works with are very bright. At least two of her students passed the GED with perfect scores — “something that is unheard of.”

Central High School guidance counselor Tim McGowan and the school district’s options for credit recovery rescued her, Alyssa said. They helped her get her education back on track.

The classroom support of Lewellyn played a big role in her success, Alyssa said. She recovered several high school credits in the Oyate classroom where Lewellyn works. In the Oyate classroom, students work independently on courses they need for graduation.

Alyssa could work at her own speed on computer-based courses there as she also attended classes at Central. She caught up.

“Oyate helped me millions,” Alyssa said.

The credit also goes to Alyssa, who “worked her tail off,” McGowan said. The courses offered through alternative programs are difficult. They are not watered-down versions of high school courses, he said.

The Rapid City Area Schools has tried to be creative in providing a varied menu of options for

students who suddenly learn they can’t leave school at 16, according to assistant superintendent Katie Bray.

Some of those students were banking on quitting school at 16 and doing something different,

McGowan said.

Rapid City already had several flexible educational options in place for students and in lean financial times has tried to preserve those programs.

“We knew when they passed the law that we would have young people returning to us who had different needs, other than what a traditional high school might offer,” Bray said.

A teen pregnancy often prevents students from returning to high school. Some students leave because of addiction problems or legal issues. A medical condition can sideline education.

And there are many teens in the community who work to support themselves financially and help their families.

“We’ve had kids drop out of school to work 40 hours a week,” said Deb Steele, principal of Rapid City’s academy system, which includes the Oyate Program and three alternative high school programs.

The academy system includes:

y  Jefferson Academy is an alternative high school where the school year is divided into three trimesters. The academy does not offer a high school diploma. Instead, students graduate from either Central or Stevens high school. Students attending Jefferson can also dual enroll in classes at their home high school.

y  Lincoln Academy offers first-time ninth-grade students a smaller setting to start their high school career; its ninth/10th grade program is designed for ninth- and 10th-graders who have failed a core class.

y   Career Learning Center serves as an alternative for students who are at risk of not graduating but have earned at least 11 high school credits. Students work at their own pace with individualized attention. Students have the flexibility to be enrolled in classes at the learning center, Jefferson, one of the district’s two high schools or Western Dakota Technical Institute.

Last summer, the school district launched a coordinated effort, Project

U-turn, to invite kids back to school. People knocked on doors to track down 16- and 17-year-old students who had dropped out. At least 70 students, ranging in age from 16 to 19, accepted the invitation. More than half of them are still working on either a high school diploma or a GED, Steele said.

Unlike Alyssa, Ceara Calvetti-Potter, 17, didn’t want to spend extra years in school pursuing a high school diploma.

Ceara chose to enroll in the Rapid City School District’s GED-prep program to prepare for GED tests offered through the state Department of Labor.

Ceara’s high school career was less than stellar. She said that as a ninth-grader, she “met the wrong crowd, and my grades started falling.” She started skipping school. Eventually, she was declared a truant and placed on probation.

“By 10th grade, I didn’t care,” Ceara said.

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Ceara was accepted at Jefferson Academy during her second year of high school. The academy’s structure was better suited to her personality, and she started doing better in school.

Things changed over the following summer. Although she was working, there was a lot of what she describes as “drama” in her life. She said she started drinking more. She also resisted any guidance from her mother and her grandparents. There wasn’t anything her family could do to change her behavior, Ceara said.

“I just didn’t want family,” Ceara said, confessing that she had even run away. “I feel so bad for my mom. I was so selfish.”

When Ceara started back to school in the fall, her drinking was worse, and school was the last place she wanted to be. Ceara managed to finish another year at the academy. Her goal was to drop out at 16, but the law had changed.

“I begged and pleaded with all my teachers to let me drop out,” Ceara said.

McGowan has met many children like Ceara this year — children whose lives, for one reason or another, have shifted off course, students like Alyssa who found themselves so far behind that making up those lost credits seems an insurmountable task.

In some cases, truancy trips them up; for others it could be a pregnancy, an illness or other life-altering situations that forced education to the bottom of their priority list.

“Life happens, truthfully, with 2,200 kids,”

McGowan said. Some of those kids have the skills to advocate for themselves and overcome those challenges. For others, it’s easier to just coast, looking for a way out.

It comes down to tough conversations about goals, McGowan said — conversations he has had several times this year.

“What do you want to do? Do you need a GED or a diploma to get you where you want to go?” McGowan asks students.

Proposing the GED has become a very real part of the conversation with students this year, McGowan said, particularly with 18-year-olds who are looking at another year or two in high school to earn a diploma.

“It’s not that the kids don’t want diplomas; sometimes, factors in life put a diploma No. 2,”

McGowan said.

Ceara enrolled in the school district’s GED-prep program last fall, working with Sharron Lewellyn at the Career Learning Center. She was required to spend two days a week, on average, in the classroom preparing for to take the GED tests. It was there she realized how much she had taken education for granted.

“Sharon made me take responsibility, and she helped me prepare for the tests,” Ceara said. “She’s an awesome teacher.”

But before she could complete the program and the GED tests, Ceara’s drinking sent her in another direction. She had two back-to-back arrests for driving under the influence and was ordered into treatment.

Her time in treatment was the wake-up call she needed, Ceara said. Once back in Rapid City, she

returned to the learning center and is close to finishing her GED testing. She is planning to leave Rapid City this summer. She’s counting on the change in environment and the support of family to help her find a new direction. Ceara plans to join an aunt and her daughters at a Christian ministry program in Ohio this summer.

One of Lewellyn’s success stories is a 16-year-old mom who completed her GED and is now a pre-nursing student at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.

“She’s ready to move on,” Lewellyn said.

Changing the law has brought kids back to school and kept reluctant students in school. It has also challenged communities, school districts and teachers to find ways to keep those youngsters in school, Pogany said.

“The beauty of it is that if schools can adapt to how we can meet the needs of the kids, we’ll get them back into education,” Pogany said.

Those who have an education will be better prepared for life — and “the better we’re all going to be,” Pogany said.

Contract Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or andrea.cook@rapicityjournalp.com

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