- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

Leesburg resident Joseph “Joey” Baker, 17, would have been 20 when he got his diploma, but he didn’t want to wait that long. He had failed the sev

enth and ninth grades.

“It wasn’t fun because I was somewhere I didn’t want to be,” Joey says. “When I was in middle school, I always got in trouble. I would skip classes and get suspended. … I wasn’t making good choices.”

Now, Joey plans to take a one-year air-and-ventilation-systems certification course at Northern Virginia Community College (Nova), an opportunity he has after passing the general equivalency diploma test in May.

Virginia requires that students attend school until they turn 18 or graduate, but under a statewide program offered at Loudoun County Public Schools since September 2000, students 16 to 18 can earn their GEDs in six weeks as long as they complete the requirements of the program.

In March 2000, the Individual Student Alternative Education Plan (ISAEP) became an acceptable alternative to the state’s attendance requirements. The Virginia Board of Education developed guidelines for the program, which is offered at a few school districts, including Loudoun County, Alexandria, Prince William County and Stafford County, for students at risk of dropping out or graduating at 19 to 20.

“A lot of kids don’t do well in a structured classroom,” says Clare Heffernan, who served as ISAEP career counselor at Loudoun County Public Schools from fall 2000 to spring 2004. “When they come here, it provides them with a different learning environment. … We really turn around a lot of kids — not us, but the program. We’re tough, but we have high expectations of them.”

Erin Sanbower, 17, thought she would never go to college until she started in ISAEP this fall.

“I was just ready to get out of school. I didn’t like it,” says Erin, who was one grade behind before she entered the program. “I never thought I could succeed at college, actually get through it. Now I know I actually can, and that is just one of my goals now.”

Erin, who is working as a pharmacy technician at Rite Aid, plans to attend Nova in the fall to study administrative assistance.

Before ISAEP, Erin would have had to wait until she was 18 to earn a GED in place of a high school diploma. ISAEP students are required to complete three components of the program before they can earn a GED and be counted as high school graduates.

In addition to preparing for and passing the GED test, the students are required to develop career goals and to demonstrate workplace readiness, a concept the state developed in the mid-1990s to identify the skills graduates need to work in the next century.

“This program allows students to complete high school requirements in an alternative format and… to get on with their lives,” says John H. “Jack” Robinson, principal at Douglass School, an alternative high school in Leesburg that houses ISAEP for Loudoun County..

“Probably 80 percent of the students are 17 or 18 who have gotten their act together in spite of drawbacks and really know they won’t hang around until they’re 20 for a diploma,” he says.

Michael Graff, 19, of Leesburg, wanted to get on with his life and has through the ISAEP program after earning his GED in fall 2002. He joined the U.S. Army in summer 2003 to serve a three-year assignment and has since been deployed to Iraq as a cook.

“I just didn’t like school. I went to school every day, but I didn’t pay attention, didn’t do homework, stuff like that,” says Mr. Graff, who would have graduated at 20 after failing several of his classes. He was ready to drop out, he says.

So was Faiza Guerrero, 20.

“I just didn’t want to go to school anymore. I was slacking off, and this was my only chance left,” says Mrs. Guerrero, who lives in Sterling, Va., and works as a veterinary technician at an animal hospital there. “I actually never worked hard in school until I got here. I really studied hard.”

In addition to preparing for the GED, ISAEP students assess their vocational interests and aptitudes by taking career-assessment tests and personality inventories. They set career goals, develop five-year plans and work on work-readiness skills, including developing a resume and conducting mock interviews.

In the mornings, they receive instructional preparation for the GED exam and career and vocational counseling. In the afternoons, they are expected to work at vocational, technical, service or other jobs for 15 to 20 hours a week, a total of 120 hours by the end of the program, ideally in the field they want to pursue.

“They need to be punctual. They need to be respectful. These things apply to moving on in the world,” says Rachel Hronis, ISAEP career counselor.

The students are expected to demonstrate a good work ethic and the ability to get and keep a job, Mr. Robinson says.

They are expected to be independent learners who are able to meet deadlines as provided on a syllabus, says Lori Sage, GED teacher since 2001, adding that she also encourages students to work in groups.

“They’re all heading to the finish line together, and they’re like a little family,” Ms. Sage says.

“[Former] students come back on almost a daily basis to say hello,” she says. “We encourage that. We want to help them with further career assistance and career exploration.”

As Mrs. Heffernan says: “We don’t just give them a GED and say, ‘Have a good life.’ Instead we follow through. We work with them on their career goals and dreams.”

An average of 70 students a year go through Loudoun’s ISAEP, and three-fourths of them meet all of the program requirements. Students are allowed to return to the program if they fail any of the five sections of the GED exam, which they can take three times a year. Up to 15 new students can be admitted to each of the six sessions offered each year.

In Alexandria, 30 students have been participating in the program so far this year. The students take a GED preparation course in the mornings with adult students at the school district’s adult learning center and work in the afternoons.

“It’s another option for students who are not being successful in a regular high school program. If not, we’d probably lose them,” says Mat Pasquale, director of career, technical and adult education for Alexandria City Public Schools. “Had we not been involved, some of these kids would have just given up.”

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