Thursday, June 21, 2018

Deep in an academic hole, Hernando student rallies to graduate

WEEKI WACHEE — Just days into her fourth year of high school, Monica Diaz walked into her guidance counselor's office and realized — finally — how badly she had messed up.

She plopped into a chair. Her mother, Marilyn, sat next to her. Joan Emerson, a school counselor for more than three decades, didn't sugarcoat things. She told Monica it would be "almost impossible" for her to graduate on time.

Through three years of high school, she had earned a .07 grade point average — all F's and a few D's. She had only nine of the 24 credits required to graduate.

It was clear she was struggling in high school, but only now did Monica grasp the magnitude of her failure. Near tears, she resolved to change.

As Monica, now 18, recalls: "I didn't want to be that one student that everybody looks back at and says, 'I knew they were going to fail.' "

After years of ignoring report cards — simply not caring — she told her mom and Emerson she would prove them wrong. She would graduate in June.

But here it was, August.

Many Hernando school officials were hard-pressed to recall a turnaround this huge. Their colleagues in other area districts couldn't think of one either.

"This is going to sound crazy," said Troy LaBarbara, principal at Weeki Wachee High School. "But she pretty much had to make up almost all four years of high school. In one year."

• • •

Monica's troubles began shortly after arriving at Central High School in Brooksville.

Easily influenced, she quickly made the wrong kinds of friends. She talked back to teachers, argued, fought and skipped classes.

A single mother of three, Marilyn Diaz worked long hours at Days Inn and struggled to get through to the stubborn teen.

But by the end of freshman year, Monica had earned only 4.5 credits — about half what she should have had.

And that was her best year.

In 10th grade, after transferring to Weeki Wachee High, she failed almost every class and earned just one credit. She transferred to Hernando High, but dug a deeper hole, ending her junior year with just 8.5 credits.

The D's on Monica's transcript acted a lot like F's. Worth only one point on a four-point scale, they weren't much help when you need a 2.0 GPA to graduate.

For her senior year, she transferred back to Weeki Wachee, which had a new administration. LaBarbara and his staff focused on helping struggling students graduate on time.

"Really, it was too late for her," LaBarbara said. "But she made it happen. She used every resource that we have here for it to happen."

• • •

Monica's road to graduation started with a detailed plan.

Emerson, her guidance counselor, laid out exactly what courses she needed to complete.

Monica would need to take a host of regular senior classes, hours of online courses and retake all or part of past courses she had failed.

It's a path familiar to many other students — just much more extreme. Emerson had seen kids come back from a couple of credits down, but never this far.

"Not a lot of students are able to follow through with those promises they make to themselves or their parents, even though they want to," she said.

Monica got to work right away.

She spent two periods a day in Weeki Wachee High's "credit recovery" lab, retaking classes she previously failed or earned D's in, and taking additional online courses with help nearby.

She worked through the online classes rapidly — finishing semester-long courses in months or weeks.

She worked on the courses after school, during downtime, throughout the weekend, on holidays. She pulled all-nighters, cut out her friends and eliminated bad influences, all while working part-time at the Days Inn with her mom.

"I'm pretty much always home," she said.

Work. Study. Repeat.

Said Emerson: "I don't know that I've ever met anybody her age that's that determined."

• • •

In all, Monica has taken 21 courses since August, including six traditional senior courses — English 4, economics, American government, math, and U.S. and world history. All A's and B's.

The rest of her courses have been online.

She has taken 10 online courses through Florida Virtual School and Hernando eSchool, the district's online class provider.

She has taken another five through CompassLearning Odyssey, a credit recovery program used for a small percentage of struggling students. It allowed her to take a pretest and only retake portions she had not already mastered.

"Compass only attacks the weak areas," LaBarbara said.

While online and credit recovery courses help struggling students like Monica graduate, their growth in recent years has stoked a debate about the quality of the education they deliver.

LaBarbara stresses that no one should follow Monica's path, but says the online courses can be quite rigorous.

"We didn't just give her grades," he said. "We made her work for it."

What helped, he said, was having support staff and teachers work with her. Monica agreed.

The school, unlike some others, has a lab designated for online courses. Teachers and lab managers clarify and reteach concepts on the spot.

"Teachers are invaluable to online courses," LaBarbara said. "You need them."

• • •

Monica doesn't want people to follow her example.

She missed the chance at a normal senior year. While the vast majority of her peers had their final day on May 21, she was stuck in school in front of a computer. She still had online courses left to finish before she could walk across the graduation stage next Thursday.

She's barely going to make it.

"Don't put yourself in this situation," LaBarbara said. "If she would have applied herself from day one, she could have been a straight-A student."

Instead of scraping by with a 2.3 GPA, Monica might have been competing for scholarships.

Still, she has given herself a better shot. Now she wants to continue her education.

"I'm not going to do all of this work for nothing," she said, laughing.

She plans to attend Pasco-Hernando Community College and later get a bachelor's degree.

After that, she wants to work with kids.

Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

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