AAHS class includes 5 expected to drop out

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster told the 508 graduating Altoona Area seniors that showing up in life is half the battle.

“If you apply yourself, work hard and show up, you will be a success,” he said in a packed Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse on Monday.

Those words must have resonated with five graduates in particular – Marion Barber, Zach Arthurs, Samantha Segura, Mindy Thomas and Justin Cupples – who would have likely dropped out without the district’s newly established Kids In New Directions program.

“I never thought I’d be here,” Barber said.

But she is among the 73 percent of the graduating class, as Substitute Superintendent Mary Lou Ray said Monday, who plans to continue education at the post-secondary level.

Barber will attend YTI Career Institute to study to be a medical assistant.

Barber was not one of those students to whom good grades would come naturally. She struggled hard for every grade she got, her parents said.

The KIND program was the reason she didn’t drop out.

“It was the quintessential light at the end of the tunnel,” Marion’s father Keith Barber said.

Her grades are in the 90s for the first time in her life, he said. She suffered in large classes. “The individual help made a huge difference,” he said.

Barber’s mother Mary has shed tears of happiness because her daughter graduated from high school.

“I didn’t think she would make it. This program really turned her around,” she said.

KIND was designed two years ago by high school Principal Patricia Burlingame and former high school Assistant Principal Ben Brenneman.

The five students entered the program with little to no credits needed for graduation, Burlingame said.

Looking at the five students’ grades last week, Burlingame said they earned mostly 90s, a few 80s and some 70s.

“We got there, and it wasn’t easy,” she said on Friday.

The KIND program students are enrolled in the district’s cyber academy courses, which they take on computers in the first floor of the high school. However, they are not isolated from their peers. They have traditional classes, too, and interaction with teachers who answer questions they may have on their cyber work.

Learning in large classes was difficult and demoralizing for Segura.

“I wasn’t understanding. I wanted to go to cyber school outside of Altoona,” she said. “But Mrs. Burlingame called me into her office and said you are going to get through this.”

With the support of all the teachers, she said, school became fun, and learning came more easily because there were eight students in KIND.

“I had more time with the teachers,” Segura said. “I didn’t dread school.”

The program’s facilitator and teacher, Dawn Morden, received a card from the students during a special celebration on Friday.

“She’s done so much for us over the past two years,” Arthurs said.

He said his high school diploma was slipping away from him halfway through his high school career because he was always arriving late and was becoming disinterested in going to school at all.

He credited Burlingame and Morden for motivating him to not give up.

“They told me I will get motivated, go to school and pass. Because of how much they’ve motivated me to do my work, I will have a much better life,” he said.

Thomas said she plans on going to veterinary technician school in Pittsburgh or Houston.

Her mother, Sandy Thomas, said her divorce with Mindy’s father started a decline in Mindy’s attitude toward school, but the KIND program reversed her path to dropping out.

“I raised a brave kid,” Thomas said, regarding her daughter’s possible plans to move to Houston. “I’m scared. I’m happy,” she said.

Cupples, 19, was stabbed in front of the high school building during his sophomore year, and his feeling of apathy about his attendance record worsened.

“I didn’t care. I was giving up,” he said. “Because of this, [KIND] I’m here.”

Brenneman saw potential in Cupples.

“He talked with me. He didn’t do it all at once,” Cupples said. “He talked me through it.”

Brenneman, currently working at another school district, spoke with Cupples and the other KIND students by live Web video chat on Friday.

“They were all faced with adversity a couple years ago. We provided the appropriate supports. But bottom line, they had to do the work,” Brenneman said.

“They should be proud of their accomplishment. We are.”

Shuster opened his speech during the graduation ceremony by acknowledging that some students may not be excited about graduation day.

“You may not be electric, but your parents are,” he said.

“This really is one of the greatest days of your life. Remember how important it is.”

There are at least five students who will.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.