Beech Street Learning Studio helps students make it to graduation day
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”
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.
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.
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.
Jacob Howard would be the first one to tell you he could not have graduated without the support of family and friends.
LaTanya White, Pottstown’s director of student services, talks about how Beech Street Learning Studio was created and who it serves.
Jacob Howard’s mom, Lanetra Hicks, met him at his surprise graduation party with a sign expressing her pride in his achievement.