Dropouts take aim at diploma

Within a few months of moving out of his family’s home in late 2011, Joseph Bellard dropped out of Acadiana High.

He had been in his junior year.

“I had a lot of personal issues going on,” said Bellard, 19. “I jumped too far into responsibilities too soon. I was more focused on paying bills and living than my grades.”

He explored options to earn a GED and enrolled in a program, but said, “deep down in my heart, I knew I was undermining my potential in a way.”

Bellard said he’s found a second chance to finish high school and earn a diploma through a new program, Lafayette WillGraduate.

He is one of 87 Lafayette Parish dropouts taking advantage of the opportunity offered through a partnership between the school system and The American Academy’s NoDropouts program. The program partners with school districts to recruit and re-engage dropouts in online educational services and to provide support as they complete their diplomas. The students receive Internet-enabled laptops and work at their own pace, in their own time.

Bellard still works, but he said not having to manage traditional school hours, or sit in a classroom where he may be easily distracted, has helped him focus on his studies.

He’s now eight credits away from graduation and could finish as early as the summer.

The program is designed to help students reach their academic goals — whether that be a diploma, GED or a return to a traditional school setting, said Matthew LaPlante, a NoDropouts spokesman.

In Lafayette, about 200 students applied for the WillGraduate program and currently 67 are enrolled and making progress toward their diplomas while another 20 students are newly enrolled, LaPlante said.

“Those numbers are consistent with what we’ve seen nationwide — many students take us up on the initial opportunity, but some just aren’t yet ready or able to commit the time and work it takes to get back to school,” LaPlante said in an e-mail response.

Students have access to online tutors 24 hours a day and an on-the-ground support system: an advocate who meets with them face-to-face at least weekly.

“These are students who have substantial obstacles in their lives,” LaPlante said. “Our job is not only to give them the education they need and deserve but the social help they may need to overcome obstacles and stay focused on their education.”

The local advocates act as mentors and connect the students with resources they need to succeed — whether it’s counseling, child care or housing services, said Bracely Williams, one of four local advocates working with Lafayette Parish students.

Pregnancy, having to work to support their families, expulsion or even anxiety and the inability to attend a traditional classroom setting are some of the reasons students in the WillGraduate program originally dropped out of school, Williams said. Students in the program may need help accessing counseling or housing services, she said.

Williams works full-time in Baton Rouge as a family therapist and also works as a NoDropouts advocate for programs in Ascension and St. James parishes.

In weekly meetings, the advocates proctor students’ tests and review their progress. Students must complete a minimum of two classes per month to be considered on track in the program, Williams said.

The school system reimburses the program monthly based on current enrollment using the per pupil state funding, from the Minimum Foundation Program, it recouped for the re-enrolled dropouts.

The Lafayette Parish school system received an MFP increase of $264,860 based on the 136 students enrolled in the program as of February, said Billy Guidry, the school system’s chief financial officer.

“They can’t bill us for more than that number of slots,” he said.

“It’s a slot, so even if someone doesn’t progress, they have an opportunity to fill someone else in that slot.”

The WillGraduate program is one of several “out of the box” efforts focused on helping students graduate high school, said Lafayette Parish School System Superintendent Pat Cooper. The district offers its own online and classroom program options for students still in school to prevent them from dropping out.

“We can’t keep having a 31 percent dropout rate,” Cooper said. “That’s not good for us, but certainly it’s not good for the community.”

Had Bellard not enrolled in the WillGraduate program, he says, he would have earned his GED. But as he says the words, his face scrunches in disappointment.

“Even though I did drop out, there’s a sense of accomplishment in it,” he said of the day he’ll earn his diploma. “The way I look at it: I took a gap year — in high school.”