June 06, 2012 - Brandon Twp.- Samantha DeRosia received her high school diploma this past Wednesday, something that seemed out of reach for her at this time last year.
Front from left, Samantha DeRosia, Justina Ashby, Hannah Roach, Rachelle Willis, Emily Burch and Rachel Cole. Back row from left, Jake Dyer, Aaron Hanley, Jason Baron, Eric Schimke, Jacob Gillispie, Jeff Vrooman, Tyler Schiedegger, Devon Willis, and Mike Barnowsky. Not pictured: James Barone, Michael Batten, Kasey Cansler, Jessa Johnson and Taylor Westerby. Photo by Patrick McAbee. (click for larger version)
"About a year ago, I didn't think I would graduate," said the 18-year-old. "It doesn't seem real. My dad asked me how I feel to be graduating, and I am going to continue my education—I'm going to Saginaw Valley State University in the fall… It's a good feeling knowing I've finished this part of my life and I can move on to another part."
DeRosia graduated June 6 along with 19 other students from the Brandon Alternative High School. A graduation ceremony took place at the Brandon Middle School, honoring the students who may have slipped through the cracks without the more individual attention they received through the non-traditional high school setting.
The Brandon Alternative High School had 73 students enrolled in grades 9-12 this year. The district has offered the alternative high school since 1994, giving students who struggle in the traditional high school another option for completing their education.
Cristina Bombardo, who teaches English at the BAHS, said the number of students has been increasing—almost doubling in her four years at the school. She attributes the increase to more stressful graduation requirements from the state. More students are enrolled at the alternative high school now for credit recovery than for any other reason.
"In the past, we had a lot of students that had quit school and then decided to return," she said. "Now we have students that have been going to school, but they have failed classes and don't have the number of credits required to graduate on time."
The alternative high school offers a small learning environment, with class sizes typically half the size of what is found at the traditional high school. Students receive more one-on-one attention from teachers who use traditional state curriculum and alter it to meet the needs of individual students. All state requirements for graduation are met.
The Brandon Alternative High School has three full-time teachers, none of whom assign homework. All work is done in class, with teachers and students working together.
Bombardo said between 70-80 percent of the BAHS students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, so they often come from challenging backgrounds.
"Each has a very unique story," she said.
Justina Ashby, 19, transferred to BAHS from the traditional high school after she became pregnant in 2009 and missed school often because of complications in her pregnancy. Her daughter, Miya, was born in February 2010 and Ashby didn't complete the school year, but enrolled again in the fall of 2010 and completed enough credits by this past December to graduate.
"I am excited that I still get to walk (in the ceremony), I wanted at least that part of my high school experience," she said. "My parents will be there, and my daughter and her father and a few friends. It feels really good for me personally—I had my baby young and had a lot of obstacles, but I'm still graduating and a lot of teen moms don't."
Ashby has been attending classes at Oakland Community College and is working two jobs. Her goal is to become a social worker.
"There's a lot of kids graduating this year have all been something through their life that threw them off and they realized that you can't let that affect your life," said DeRosia, who turned to the alternative high school after her mother moved twice while she was in high school. She was falling behind and moved in with her father. "I wanted to see my old friends at the high school, but mentally, I couldn't handle all the students, all the classes. There was too much pressure on me and the alternative program offered a one-on-one program where if I needed help the teachers would be there for me."
She notes that the alternative high school doesn't have all the social activities or sports offered at the traditional high school, but it has offered her a chance she wouldn't have otherwise.
"You have to do what is best for you and I am so proud of my fellow graduates, it's been a long road for them," said DeRosia, who plans to study education at SVSU to one day teach high school math. She was inspired in her career goal by a teacher at the alternative high school who helped her understand math.
"I can't thank the teachers enough for everything they taught us and all the time and effort they put in," she said.
Bombardo is just happy to see them graduate and knows their parents are, too.
"Some parents have told me they never thought their son or daughter would graduate, but here they are," she said. "We feel it is a job well done."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville