Cherokee High Gives At-Risk Seniors ‘Choice’ To Graduate

Courtesy of Michelle Duren

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This story is part of WABE and American Graduate’s Advancing Atlanta: Education series. For more stories, click here.

When Tyler Folks started at Cherokee High School, few expected him to finish.

“I didn’t want to be here,” Folks said. “I didn’t like school. I’d get in trouble, get in fights, didn’t care.”

He would get mad at teachers. He was older than others because he was held back in middle school. He has a hard time reading.

Outside of class, Folks had trouble too. Close to his senior year, he became homeless.

“My grandparents got too sick,” he said. “My real mom’s really bad into drugs and I don’t want to be around her. My dad, I don’t talk to him. So I really didn’t have anywhere.”

He got behind in a couple classes at school. Finally, he dropped out.

Or tried to. Two women at the school, a teacher and a counselor, wouldn’t allow it.

Cherokee High School’s ‘CHOICE’ Program

At Cherokee High School, teachers and administrators have developed a program to keep special needs students, like Folks, from falling through the cracks. They call it ‘CHOICE’.

“The CHOICE program is specifically focused on students with special needs and looking to get them to a high school diploma,” said Liz Spell, a graduation coach with Cherokee County schools. She spearheads the program at Cherokee High School with Michelle Duren, a special education teacher.

CHOICE is for seniors dealing with learning disabilities, like trouble with writing or math, who often have difficult circumstances on top of that. The forces combined get the students behind in a course or two, sometimes even a year’s worth of credits.

“All of them have special specific things in their lives that are going on that they need sometimes just the support of us saying come on you can do this, you’ve got to get this done,” Duren said.

As part of the program, Spell and Duren design a plan to graduate for each of the seniors. They then set up monthly conferences in the principal’s office to track progress. They spend lunch hours with the seniors redoing courses.

“Because they have gotten behind, they have to do catch up and so we’re constantly just checking with them,” Spell said.

“I mean, it’s really a daily thing,” Duren said. “They’re in touch with one of us daily.”

Developing Relationships

For some seniors in the program, the attention from Duren and Spell is something they weren’t getting from anyone else in their life. For Folks, it’s even a little overwhelming.

“Yeah, it is,” he said, “because, I mean, no one ever else really cared about me as much as they do.”

Spell and Duren’s concern for the students extends beyond the classroom. They text with them to make sure they’re doing okay or staying on track. They might pick them up if they miss the bus.

In Folks’ case, when he was homeless, they even provided him a place to live. He’s now staying with Duren’s family through his senior year, because she saw it was necessary in order for him to graduate.

“He has to deal with me here and then he has to deal with me once he leaves here,” Duren said. “It’s what he needed. It was hard at first but I think he appreciates it now.”

Folks’ group of 26 seniors is the third to take part in Cherokee High’s CHOICE program. In its first year, 10 out of 12 graduated. In the second, 16 out of 18 did.

The program’s success comes down to the relationships, said Charlette Green, Cherokee County’s director of special education.

“Kids will do phenomenal things when they know that you support them and you believe in them,” Green said. “They’ll meet you where your expectations are.”

Green said the CHOICE program gives teachers like Duren and Spell the resources to take extra time to show special needs seniors what’s possible.

“In some of our families, some of our kids are the first ones to graduate with a high school diploma,” Green said. “So it’s helping them see what the next phase of life can be.”

Special Needs Graduation In Georgia

In Georgia, many students with disabilities never graduate. In the 2013-2014 school year, just over 35 percent of special needs seniors graduated on time. Last year, 2014-2015, that four-year graduation rate rose to just over 50 percent.

The Georgia Department of Education implemented a program, starting fall of 2015, to improve the graduation rate of special needs students in the state. It chose 50 school districts to participate, some that struggled and some that showed promise in getting these students to a diploma.

Cherokee County School District was invited into the program for the latter reason. The temporary state funding that came with involvement allowed the county to expand the CHOICE program beyond Cherokee High School to two other high schools in the district.

Debbie Gay, director of Special Education Services and Support at the Georgia Department of Education, said Cherokee County’s mentorship program is just one approach districts in the state are taking to improve graduation rates.

“Some may be doing it by having groups of kids come together and talk about what’s getting in their way,” Gay said. “Some of the school districts I think have figured out that to keep kids in school, you have to engage them. There’s all kinds of initiatives but you really have to understand your school, your community and who those kids are, to pick the right supports that are going to work for you.”

That’s exactly what the CHOICE program is, the district said: tailored for the kids of Cherokee County. While the extra state funding for CHOICE is temporary, Green said she hopes the county can continue to grow the program and perhaps even expand it to non-special needs students.

Finally Graduating

At Cherokee High School, Spell and Duren looked at photos the CHOICE seniors sent them of prom over the weekend. They admitted it wouldn’t be easy to get all 26 seniors in the CHOICE program this year on the graduation stage in May.

As for Folks, however, he’s on track. He’s even most of the way through a work study program to get his welding certifications, he said.

“I don’t know … I’m going to graduate, I guess,” Folks said, before correcting himself. “For sure, I’m going to graduate.”

Asked what that will be like after all of this, Folks said, “I don’t know. Probably just a big old sigh of relief, probably.”

He continued, “And then I’m never going to come back again. I’m not even going to visit.”

Duren and Spell said they know that’s not true.

This story is part of American Graduate, Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.