As a freshman at Newtown High School in Queens, Giselle Peña missed a lot of classes. Her father had left the house, her sister became pregnant and her brother kept getting in trouble with the police. When her mother sent her sister to live with family in the Dominican Republic during Peña’s sophomore year, it was the last straw.
“I wasn’t really used to my dad not being there. So I was very rebellious. I didn’t want to listen to teachers or even come in to school because I felt like, why should I?” Peña said.Research on high school dropout rates has shown that Peña’s chronic absenteeism is an early warning sign that a student won’t graduate on time. Nationally, up to 40 percent of ninth grade students in cities with the highest dropout rates repeat ninth grade and only 10 to 15 percent of those repeaters go on to graduate, according to an article published in Education Week.
So when Peña volunteered to join the United Way of New York’s GPS program, she was a perfect candidate. Short for “Graduate, Prepare, Succeed,” this in-school counseling program targets students with 20 to 75 absences the previous year. Now in its second year, GPS serves close to 5,000 students in over 60 schools in New York City. The United Way provides grants to community-based organizations who in turn pay the salaries of two to three counselors in each school. GPS educational counselors help students with schoolwork, reward them for good attendance records and sometimes just lend a sympathetic ear.
Peña found out about the GPS program through a friend and was soon meeting with Kazuko Sakamoto, her counselor, nearly every day.
“She started being more vocal about her needs with me but also with her teachers,” said Sakamoto. “If she forgot her homework or needed to do extra credit she would actually go up to the teacher and ask for extra work.”
Peña is just one of the approximately 30 students Sakamoto sees each week, but that didn’t prevent the pair from forming a special bond. With the help of the GPS program and a lot of determination, Peña was able to recover two years of high school credits in just one year.
“I want to give my mom that joy of at least one kid graduating high school,” said Peña. She will enter LaGuardia Community College as a freshman in fall 2012, making her the first in her family to attend college.
But success may come as easily to all students in the GPS program. “We definitely have students who don’t improve their attendance or academics regardless of the program,” said Sakamoto. She said that students who show no improvement are recommended to other options like programs to help them earn a GED or transfer schools.
Although Newtown High School is one of 24 city schools that will be closed as part of the Education Department’s “turnaround plan,” the GPS program will remain, according to a representative of the United Way. Newtown will be known as the College and Career Academies High School at Newtown Campus beginning in fall 2012.
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