tampabay.com

At-risk teens frustrated by program's termination

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published August 19, 2006


TAMPA - Faheema Suleiman hasn't always been the perfect student. She knows that without help, she probably won't graduate from Gaither High School with her senior class.

The 19-year-old was betting on a self-paced, computerized program called Impact to complete the 6½ credits she needs to get her diploma.

"I felt like I could do it and I could finish it," Suleiman said.

Then the school killed the program and told Suleiman and her 19 "at-risk" classmates to find other ways to get through high school. The students learned of the move late Thursday. They gathered Friday to discuss their options.

They don't want to settle for a GED program, which they say their guidance counselors have suggested.

"We're trying to do things with our lives," said Tyler Tourinho, 18. "We're trying to do better than those who left school."

The students and their parents have asked school leaders to reinstate the program, which operates at all but three Hillsborough County high schools.

"They could have cut another class, as far as I'm concerned," said Sheila Dave, whose daughter, Aarti, was enrolled in Impact. "These are at-risk kids. If you break them now, you're going to break them."

So far they've gotten nowhere.

The reason, principal Brenda Grasso said, comes down to simple math. Gaither had 2,305 students at its last official count, yet it had teachers for a projected enrollment of 2,433. So, it must get rid of the extra teachers, like other schools that overestimated their attendance. Gaither lost four teachers in the shuffle.

Grasso agreed that asking a teen to settle for a GED sends the wrong message. But the counselors were being "very open" about alternatives, she added. That said, Grasso insisted she wants to keep the students at Gaither.

She has assigned each of the school's five administrators, including herself, to mentor three or four of the students toward graduation. She called each parent on Friday.

"This has to work," said Grasso, who intends to meet individually with the students on Monday. "I'm not going to promise students and parents something I can't deliver."

The teens weren't so sure. They said they lost two weeks of work, and, worse, felt stepped on by the school system.

Brandon Johnson, 17, said he would have to take regular school, night school and online courses to do what Impact was helping him accomplish. That's on top of working and helping his parents with his siblings.

He'd prefer that "tough situation" to the alternative.

"I don't want to get my GED. I want to graduate and walk with my friends," he said. "We're an A school. There's no reason why this class should be dropped."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or 813 269-5304.