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Adult Ed gives Buffalo youth second chance at diploma

Kyra Truman imagined herself with a high school diploma and a college degree – but it was more than just a daydream.

In her new class, the 18-year-old who left Burgard High School before graduating wrote on a board all of the good things she wants out of life and then visualized herself attaining those objectives. “I had just little things, like a graduate’s cap and stuff like that, and stuff to look forward to,” Truman said.

Looking at it every day helped her get closer to her goals. Now she is almost there and gives a lot of the credit to this visualization exercise she learned at Career Collegiate Institute, the youth program of the Buffalo Public Schools’ Adult Education Division.

The institute serves 16- to 21-year-olds who did not make it through high school but still aim to go to college or on to a technical career in areas like cosmetology and certified nursing assistant. The program’s completion rate was 69 percent last year and 68 percent in 2013. The figures are above the district’s graduation rate – which hovers at only around 50 percent.

Truman’s guidance counselor at Burgard told her about CCI. At the time, the senior was 11 credits short of graduating and facing at least another year of school.

“He told me, ‘I think this program would be a good fit for you because your Regents are almost done, but you just don’t have enough credits to graduate,’ ” Truman said. “He said, ‘You can move through the program very quickly and very easily, and I think you can go straight into college once you finish.’ ”

Staffers from Adult Ed and Erie Community College work side by side to give such students an easier, more efficient transition into college. Truman enrolled in the institute in July; a month later, she passed the Test Assessing Secondary Completion to get her high school equivalency diploma. But since ECC’s deadline for fall admission passed before she received the results, she is currently enrolled in its pre-collegiate program and will begin college studies in liberal arts and math in the spring.

“I swear it works,” Truman said of her visualization board. “It really comes to you.”

The visualization exercise is one of the differences that sets CCI apart from traditional public schools, students said. Empowerment groups – one for men, another for women – is another example of the specialized attention students said also makes a difference. The groups let them talk out personal issues – the death of a loved one, for example – that might get in the way of their academics.

“It was worth it to come here,” Truman said. “I’ve discovered some things, so many different opportunities that I didn’t even understand in high school. Places like this exist for people like me.”

At least 411 young people have earned their high school equivalency diploma through the institute since 2006-07, including 132 who were accepted into ECC. Why could they make it in Adult Ed but not in the traditional Buffalo Public Schools?

Students say the personalized attention at the institute, at 756 St. Lawrence Ave. in North Buffalo, is the difference in motivating them to reach their goals. Each student is assigned to one of five teachers and an adviser. There is also a full-time psychologist and social worker on-site, two teachers certified in special education, six assessment and advisement instructors and two English as a Second Language teachers.

Tiana Caminaro attended South Park High School but “it wasn’t a good fit,” the 17-year-old said, even though she enjoyed being involved with groups and after-school activities.

“I wasn’t learning properly. I have to learn one-on-one with teachers,” she said. The teen recently took the test for her high school equivalency diploma, then plans to study cosmetology at ECC. She credits the institute for her success.

“It was a better environment for me,” she said, citing not just the personal attention but also the empowerment groups that help young people process issues that might otherwise sidetrack them. In her case, Caminaro was having a hard time coping with the death of her grandmother, but a group session on grief proved cathartic.

“I think that helped me a lot because I hold all my feelings inside,” she said.

It is easier to give personalized attention in CCI’s classes of 15 to 18 students, compared to class sizes of 30 to 32 allowed by contract now in the district’s K-12 schools. The institute’s smaller classes make it tricky to draw lessons that high schools might employ to retain these students in the first place. The Buffalo Teachers Federation has advocated reducing class sizes and providing more support services in the district’s traditional schools.

Assessing the cost of the specialized attention also is difficult. While grants fund most of Adult Ed’s academic programs, the district pays $681,000 a year for CCI after that grant dried up two years ago. But though the U.S. Census Bureau reported this year that the district spends more than $18,000 per student overall, Adult Ed officials say they keep no comparable figures because of the transitional nature of their programs, with students leaving and returning.

Still, CCI seems to work for certain types of people looking for an alternative. Its student body includes young people sent there by courts as well as those referred from the Erie County Department of Social Services. Almost half are special-education students, said Jerica DeGlopper, Youth Department site coordinator.

Giving such young people a second chance is part of the value of adult education programs, said Lester B. Leopold, the district’s director of Adult Ed. In the past five years, 1,061 of the 11,688 students seeking their high school equivalency diploma throughout Adult Ed – including CCI students – succeeded, officials said.

“The community needs to know that just because you left school for one reason, don’t be afraid to come back,” Leopold said.

The division’s partnership with ECC – dubbed Pathways – also saves students money if they need remediation, offering free, 10-week “precollegiate” courses in math, reading and writing at ECC’s three campuses to help students prepare for college life, said Chris Trietley, Pathways case manager. Students who take the courses do not have to use their financial aid to pay for remedial help once they actually start college, Trietley said.

Not all of the students end up in college. Alicia Raley is taking CCI’s career path. The 18-year-old knew she wanted to become a cosmetologist, but social and behavioral problems at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts got in the way. Fights among students caused her a lot of anxiety and made it hard to get through the school day, she said. Her grades began to fall.

“I didn’t have learning disabilities. It was just the people around me,” Raley said. “It was too much for me to deal with.”

A Say Yes program adviser at Performing Arts told her about the institute, where she received more one-on-one instruction. Another benefit, she said, was that CCI students seemed more mature and focused on education than her peers at Performing Arts.

“I was able to focus more. There were less people” in the classes, she said.

What’s more, she wouldn’t have graduated from Performing Arts until June 2016. Instead, she came to CCI this past August, took the high school equivalency test a few weeks later and found out Oct. 27 that she had earned her equivalency diploma – eight months earlier than if she had stayed at Performing Arts to graduate.

“I was happy,” said Raley, who immediately enrolled in the Buffalo School of Cosmetology, a training program that Adult Education also operates.