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Graduation Day: Night school option pays off

By Sarah Campbell
scampbell@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY — Six months ago, if someone had told Dennis Ijames and Cristian Arizmendez that they would be graduating from high school today, neither one of them would have believed it.
But that was before the Rowan-Salisbury School System launched its night school program.
The program began at West Rowan and Carson high schools at the end of March, giving struggling students an alternative way to complete coursework.
“If it wouldn’t have been for night school, I would have dropped out,” Ijames, a senior from West Rowan, said.
West Principal Dr. Jamie Durant said the idea was a collaborative effort that came from one of the high school principal meetings.
“As usual, the conversation was about high school dropouts and what we can do to continue to increase our graduation rate,” he said.
The school system’s dropout rate increased last year with 276 students leaving school, for a rate of 4.24 percent. The previous year, 254 students dropped out for a rate of 3.84 percent.
“We kicked around ideas and came up with the possibility of offering students the opportunity to come in after school hours because of the number of conflicts and variety of issues they deal with that prohibit them from coming during the day,” Durant said.
Durant said before night school began, the school tried to reach out to any student who might be in jeopardy of not graduating.
“We also called all the students who dropped out this year and introduced them to the idea,” he said. “We had multiple students come back, some successful, some not, but at least we gave them the opportunity to try school again.”
Night school is held from 4:30 to 7:30 every Monday through Thursday. Durant said some students only go for one 50-minute block, while others might go for all three.
“Some students are on a hybrid schedule doing some classes during the day and some at night,” he said. “Some come strictly at night.
“It’s a flexible opportunity.”
• • •
Ijames said night school gave him a second chance.
The 18-year-old dropped out of school last fall due to family struggles. Although he returned in the spring, it didn’t take long before he was missing days of school and falling behind.
Ijames moved from house to house to house, never staying in one place for more than a month.
“I’ve had a really tough eight months. I was about to quit again, but then I heard about night school,” he said. “This was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
But Ijames still worried he wouldn’t make it through night school.
“I thought I wasn’t going to pass the EOCs (end-of-course tests),” he said.
That was until he moved in with his friend Marc Vargas and his mother, Ami Salas.
Ijames said Salas gave him the encouragement he needed to keep going.
“She said ‘I don’t want to hear you say that you can’t, because I know you can do it,’ ” he said. “She’s really the only person who has ever believed in me.”
Salas said she treats Ijames like her own son.
“He may not have grown in my belly, but he’s grown in my heart,” she said. “I’m so proud of him.”
Ijames started a job working for a private mechanic shop in Salisbury this week.
One of the reasons he dropped out in the fall was to look for a job to support himself. His flexible night school gave him the time he needed to find that job.
He is also hoping to attend college.
“I’ve got a lot to look forward to,” Ijames said. “I won’t be considered a high school dropout, I feel good about myself because not a lot of people in my family have graduated from high school.”
• • •
Arizmendez said having a 1-year-old son made going to school every day a struggle.
“It was really hard,” he said. “I was just missing too many days and failing classes.”
Arizmendez said when the baby would keep him up at all hours of the night crying, he just couldn’t make the first bell.
When a school counselor told him about night school, he knew he had a shot at graduating.
“I was happy because I knew it was going to work way better than coming here in the morning,” he said.
Night school allowed Arizmendez to stay home with his son, Jayden, during the day and attend school from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Arizmendez said the night school experience wasn’t the same as typical day classes. He said everyone had to be more focused on the task at hand.
“It wasn’t fun, but it was an opportunity to graduate,” he said.
Arizmendez said after graduating today he plans to get a job and save up money to attend Rowan-Cabarrus Community College to study auto mechanics.
“It’s pretty hard to get a job without a high school diploma,” he said. “Without night school, I probably wouldn’t have graduated.”
• • •
Ijames and Arizmendez are just two of the 18 night school graduates who will be receiving their high school diplomas today.
“It’s great,” Durant said. “It’s obviously a plus for them. We always encourage all student to continue with their education and get a diploma because it’s going to benefit them in the long run.”
Durant said he’s hoping to continue the program next year with a little tweaking.
“This is just another opportunity for us to provide students with a way to be successful.”
Ijames said he’s grateful to Durant and assistant principal Richard Hansen for offering him the chance to participate in night school.
“I try my best every time I see Mr. Durant and Mr. Hansen to shake their hand and say thank you because if it wasn’t for them, I would have dropped out,” he said.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.

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