Over­com­ing ob­sta­cles

Beech Street Learn­ing Stu­dio helps stu­dents make it to grad­u­a­tion day

The Community Connection - - FRONT PAGE - By Evan Brandt ebrandt@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @PottstownNews on Twit­ter

POTTSTOWN >> Let’s face it, not ev­ery­one sees the con­ven­tional class­room and the ed­u­ca­tion it pro­vides as their top pri­or­ity.

Set­ting aside pref­er­ences and per­son­al­i­ties, there can be real world con­sid­er­a­tions — like child care, poverty, home­less­ness, or ill­ness — which make it im­pos­si­ble to make it to class ev­ery day and to stay there through grad­u­a­tion.

In un­der­funded school dis­tricts like Pottstown — which gets $13.8 mil­lion less in state aid than is called for in the state’s own fair fund­ing for­mula — the pop­u­la­tion of stu­dents fac­ing such hard­ships can be even higher.

That’s why Pottstown needed a way to help those stu­dents over­come those in­di­vid­ual hard­ships, and move for­ward with the ed­u­ca­tion that pro­vides them their best chance for suc­cess.

En­ter LaTanya White and the Beech Street Learn­ing Stu­dio.

Lo­cated in the former gym­na­sium pf the former Wash­ing­ton Street School, now the dis­trict’s ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing, the Beech Street Stu­dio is de­signed to, as much as pos­si­ble, be all things to all stu­dents who are strug­gling to com­plete their ed­u­ca­tion.

“Two years ago, Su­per­in­ten­dent (Stephen) Ro­driguez tasked me with find­ing a way to re­duce our drop-out rate,” said White, who is the dis­trict’s di­rec­tor of stu­dent ser­vices.

Through the dis­trict’s ed­u­ca­tional soft­ware provider, Pear­son, White heard about a pro­gram in Ephrata, Lan­caster County, that sounded like if of­fered some prom­ise. So she headed out there, learned how their pro­gram worked, and be­gan adapt­ing it to Pottstown’s needs.

What emerged is the Beech Street Learn­ing Cen­ter’s whose pri­mary pur­pose is to adapt it­self to the stu­dent’s in­di­vid­ual needs.

For ex­am­ple, said White, one of the eight stu­dents now en­rolled has a child and could not ar­range for child care for the en­tire school day, “but she can come for the morn­ing ses­sion and do her work, so she does.”

Staffed by Su­san Ross, the pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor who trains the staff and Ji­mai Spring­field, who runs the morn­ing pro­gram from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; and Sarah Clark who over­sees the af­ter­noon ses­sion from 12 to 4 p.m., the cost of the Learn­ing Stu­dio is rel­a­tively low.

“We brought back one stu­dent from a cy­ber-char­ter and just the sav­ings of that tu­ition alone prac­ti­cally pays for the whole pro­gram,” White said.

There is max­i­mum of 10 stu­dents in each of the two ses­sions. The pro­gram cur­rently has eight “but we are get­ting in­quiries all the time as word gets out,” White said.

The idea is to help stu­dents over­come the ob­sta­cle that might keep them from fin­ish­ing school by be­ing flex­i­ble.

And the pro­gram’s first grad­u­ate, Jacob Howard, is the per­fect ex­am­ple.

Two cred­its shy of grad­u­at­ing from Pottstown, he moved to a neigh­bor­ing school dis­trict and faced a per­plex­ing prob­lem. He had too many cred­its for that school dis­trict to pro­vide him with a di­ploma.

With the clock ticking, his fam­ily ap­proached Pottstown and they were told “if they can’t help you than we will help,” said White.

Howard’s par­tic­u­lar prob­lem was he had to fin­ish his two cred­its be­fore the end of Septem­ber to get his di­ploma and be a mem­ber of Pottstown’s Class of 2018.

“Be­cause we have the abil­ity to give per­son­al­ized learn­ing in this pro­gram, we in­vited Jacob back to get the cred­its he needed so that he could grad­u­ate from Pottstown High School and then he could go on to a post-se­condary pro­gram where he plans on study­ing psy­chol­ogy,” said Ro­driguez.

Ro­driguez spoke dur­ing a Sept. 20 press con­fer­ence an­nounc­ing a $1 mil­lion state grant to help make up for the tax rev­enue loss when Pottstown Hos­pi­tal was re­moved from the tax rolls and Howard was qui­etly work­ing at his com­puter along the wall when he was pulled into the spot­light with the state of­fi­cials there to de­liver the grant.

“A lot of times its dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand what

these pro­grams mean, but you’ve got an ex­am­ple here. He is an out­stand­ing your man who has done a lot of great things, and I know he is full of prom­ise,” Ro­driguez said. “As far as I’m con­cerned, this is the rea­son that we fight” for fair fund­ing.

Ro­driguez said Howard “will not count as a drop out any­where in Penn­syl­va­nia be­cause he’ll have his di­ploma and then he’ll move on to study psy­chol­ogy and make a dif­fer­ence in peo­ple’s lives.”

“This is fan­tas­tic,” said Pottstown School Board Pres­i­dent Amy Fran­cis dur­ing a quick tour be­fore the press con­fer­ence. “There are so many chil­dren who need some­thing like this.”

But even those get­ting the spe­cial­ized help of­fered at Beech Street some­times

still need a push.

After a long week­end dur­ing which White had ex­pected Howard to do school work, he told her he had worked at his pay­ing job in­stead.

“I said ‘let me break this down for you. If you do not fin­ish by Sept. 30, you will not get a di­ploma — ever!’” White said dur­ing Howard’s sur­prise grad­u­a­tion party.

“From then on, he was not only com­ing ev­ery day, he was do­ing both ses­sions, he was work­ing at home. He killed him­self the past cou­ple of weeks to make sure he got done on time, and not only did he get done, he got done early,” she said to a round of ap­plause. “He com­pleted two en­tire cred­its in one month, and not only that, he passed all his cour­ses with a B or higher.”

For his part Howard, a lanky soft-spo­ken youth with a wry smile, said the Beech Street model suited him.

“I’ve al­ways been an in­tro­vert. I like work­ing alone. I al­ways sat near the back of the room, and here I’ve got my own space, my own chair,” he said SEpt. 20 as went back to his class­work, in­tro­duc­tion to Amer­i­can sign lan­guage.

Howard plans to at­tend the Pottstown cam­pus of Mont­gomery County Com­mu­nity Col­lege and to study psy­chol­ogy.

The abil­ity to fo­cus on one course at a time or, in Howard’s cast two, is some­thing the learn­ing stu­dio’s stu­dents ap­pre­ci­ate said White.

“We brought back two drop-outs, both of whom only needed two and a half cred­its. They can work on the one sub­ject and see their cred­its ac­cu­mu­late. It re­ally mo­ti­vates them,” she said. “We mea­sure suc­cess one course at a time”

EMILY OVERDORF — FOR DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Jacob Howard, the first stu­dent to earn his high school di­ploma through Pottstown’s Beech Street Learn­ing Stu­dio pro­gram, is con­grat­u­lated by High School Prin­ci­pal Danielle McCoy amid a clus­ter of cam­eras.

EVAN BRANDT — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Pottstown Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Stephen Ro­driguez, left, cites Beech Street Learn­ing Stu­dio stu­dent Jacob Howard as one way Pottstown goes over and above in ser­vice to its stu­dents.

EVAN BRANDT — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Newly minted Pottstown High School grad­u­ate Jacob Hoawrd, cen­ter, with his par­ents Lane­tra Hicks, right, and Cor­nelius Howard, left dur­ing his grad­u­a­tion party at Beech Street Learn­ing Stu­dio.

EVAN BRANDT — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Jacob Howard would be the first one to tell you he could not have grad­u­ated with­out the sup­port of fam­ily and friends.

EVAN BRANDT — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

LaTanya White, Pottstown’s di­rec­tor of stu­dent ser­vices, talks about how Beech Street Learn­ing Stu­dio was cre­ated and who it serves.

EMILY OVERDORF — FOR DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Jacob Howard’s mom, Lane­tra Hicks, met him at his sur­prise grad­u­a­tion party with a sign ex­press­ing her pride in his achieve­ment.

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