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'Second Chance' Program Helps Students Earn High School Diploma

The Associated Press

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — The label "high school dropout" carries a high stigma in society, with dropouts having trouble finding work and making a living for themselves and their families.

Three years ago, Gadsden City Schools created the Second Chance program to help select students avoid those problems. As the year ends, five students who would not have graduated are about to receive their diplomas and face brighter futures than they would have otherwise.

The Second Chance program isn't for everyone. It isn't designed to help students who slacked off and entered their senior years many credits behind. It is designed to help students who are only three or four credits or fewer away from graduating get their diplomas.

The program is a part of the Gadsden Alternative School. Administrator Donna Smoots said only 5 percent of the students who have come through the program have not finished, roughly about one or two a semester. Smoots attributed the program's success to its small staff and the one-on-one time they get to spend with students, creating a close-knit atmosphere.

Second Chance also uses computers to help its students accomplish their goals. With the integration of technology into every aspect of young people's lives, the computers help the students learn in a way that comes more naturally to them than traditional textbooks and whiteboards.

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Demetrius Jelks, 18, and Michael Peoples, 19, are two of the students graduating in December. Jelks was only two credits short of graduating, while Peoples needed a single credit and needed to pass the graduation exam. He passed the exam on his first try.

Both students said the program gave them a solid foundation to take their next steps in life.

Jelks hopes to attend Gadsden State Community College, then transfer to Alabama A&M and study to be an architect. He said he wants to follow that path because he loves to draw.

He said he learned a lot during his time with Second Chance, especially how far behind he was in his studies. Before the program, he said, he couldn't find a job working in a fast-food restaurant because he didn't have a diploma.

Peoples had the same problems. He struggled as a student, skimming by until he fell just barely behind. He said he wants to become a welder and will head to Gadsden State in the fall to start working toward that goal.

He said he's proud of what he has accomplished because he knows so many classmates who copied answers and slid through the cracks to get their diplomas. Now, he has the knowledge he needs to move forward in higher education.

Peoples said his work ethic has seen the biggest change since he joined Second Chance. He struggled from time to time to keep focus, but he knew he had a lot riding on him getting his diploma.

Peoples' wife is pregnant, their child is due shortly and his priorities in life have changed since he started working toward finishing his diploma.

"It's a major change. I used to spend money on clothes and whatever else," Peoples said. "Now I have responsibilities. I have to keep food in the house and take care of my wife. I won't spend any money unless I know everything else is taken care of."

Family support has helped Jelks and Peoples be successful. Jelks' mother suggested the program to him and drove him to school every day. Peoples' parents both died when he was in the sixth grade, and he has leaned on his sister, who lives closer to the school than his current residence in East Gadsden.

Smoots said the program's goal is to not just to help students get their diplomas, but to prepare them for their next moves to college or trade school.

With both Jelks and Peoples starting school in the fall, Smoots said she plans a "refresher course" for her students during the summer, knowing that if they don't use the knowledge they have gained, they may lose it.

Smoots also plans to expand the program. She has seen her students succeed inside and outside of Second Chance. Through work with colleges like Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Gadsden State and Jacksonville State, she hopes to give them plans for moving forward that they can be confident will succeed, as long as they keep up the hard work.

English teacher Ebony Pearson said the program can make students well-rounded and well-prepared for what's next in those schools.

Although many students may come in with gruff demeanors and bad attitudes, Pearson said nobody passes judgment on them.

The students come around once they see how much everyone cares about their success.

Despite the challenges, it's all worth it.

"That's the whole point of teaching," Pearson said. "It makes all the difference in the world to see them reach their goals."


Information from: The Gadsden Times,

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