Last semester, 38 students received their diplomas and/or certificates of attendance and about 20 are on track to graduate this spring.
In his first year at Polaris, Principal Curt Ashley said the change from Polaris Evening School to Polaris Evening Program allowed more flexibility with state regulations and allowed students to take online courses for credit.
“This is an opportunity for some students who weren’t successful during the day to have a second, maybe a third chance to get their diplomas and go on, whether that’s to a trade school, university or work,” Ashley said. “Getting across the stage, that’s what we want. That opens doors for whatever you want to do.”
Implemented at the beginning of the 2012-13 academic year, the change allows the students’ graduation data to be reported back to the school each student would attend if not enrolled in the program, so as not to negatively affect state-reported graduation rates.
Ashley said the change has been an invaluable tool to help his students get their diplomas.
“These kids come, they’re working hard and I’m glad to see we’re picking up again with more students graduating with the flexibility that we have in place now is really helping,” Ashley said.
When the change was approved by the Cherokee County Board of Education in May 2012, Superintendent Dr. Frank Petruzielo said the release of statewide graduation rates citing Polaris having an 18 percent graduation rate—the lowest among county schools—evaluated the school unfairly. The calculation by the Georgia Department of Education does not take into account students who take more than two years and one summer to graduate.
Because many of these students face challenges preventing them from graduating in four years, the 18 percent graduation rate is discouraging for many of them, Petruzielo said.
“(The students) are being evaluated not based on their ultimate success but the fact that it is taking them longer to get their degree,” Petruzielo said at the meeting.
Polaris Counselor Carol Baumgartner, who is in her first year at the school, said she is amazed by many of the students.
“It has just been an inspiration to work with these students because they are juggling so many things in their lives and making school a priority,” she said. “It takes a lot of self-discipline, stamina and determination… to get things done and make a better life.”
Nayely Pedroza came from Lassiter High School in Cobb County, where the 19-year-old said she had struggles managing her schedule after having to work with a series of different counselors. She said that was part of the reason why she stopped going to school for a little while.
But when her cousin told her about how his wife was able to graduate from Polaris, Pedroza moved in with her uncle in Woodstock and was quickly able to complete 11 online classes to get her back on track to graduate in March.
Pedroza said the energy of the teachers at Polaris has made her eager to learn.
“It captures your attention and your interest,” she said. You actually want to sit in class and pay attention to what’s going on around you.”
Jessica Germick, another student on track to graduate this year, grew up in Ohio but ran away from home at 17 years old to move in with her husband, where they lived with five of her husband’s family members in a three-bedroom apartment.
When several of the family members left and they struggled to pay rent, the 19-year-old said she left school to work at Wal-Mart but was still unable to pay the bills. In October, she and her husband moved to Canton where she tried to enroll in a traditional high school, but was told she was too old and was directed to Polaris.
“It turned out to be a lot better, schedule-wise,” she said.
Germick said Baumgartner helped her schedule classes so she could graduate on time and helped get her transcripts from Ohio. When she had trouble finding a job to pay for gas, Baumgartner worked with her to organize transportation.
“That meant a lot to me that she cared enough to help me in that situation,” Germick said.
Acworth resident Rebecca Lewis said she likes coming to Polaris because her teachers are encouraging.
“They understand that each one of us has a different story and they work with you, no matter what it is you’re going through or where it is you’re at, they’re willing to help,” the 19-year-old said.
Lewis previously attended Etowah, but said she moved to Polaris because she had difficulty getting along with some other students.
“I was never a bad student, but people didn’t like me too much,” she said. “So I came here to succeed without having to compete… I don’t have to compete for attention with my teachers because they might recognize another student over me. It’s smaller classes and more one-on-one time.”
Frank Anadio, a Woodstock resident, said he was supposed to graduate two years ago but dropped out when his parents asked him to come work with them. The 19-year-old went to work for about a year-and-a-half.
“Heating and air was just not something I wanted to do with my life,” Anadio said.
Anadio decided to go back to Polaris because his former school wasn’t a good fit.
“I didn’t like most of my teachers, they weren’t really helpful to me or explain things when I asked,” he said. “When I came here, everything was just smoothed right over.”
“What I was doing right after I dropped out of school was definitely pushing me in the right direction because I don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck,” Anadio said. “I’m just really trying to focus and I want to build my future as quick as possible, but not struggle so much. I struggled a lot in high school so coming here is a very nice change.”
Before and after Polaris’ name change, Board of Education Chair Janet Read has advocated for more recognition of the program.
At a Canton Rotary meeting last year, Read asked for change in the way these students are considered.
“I would really like to see us celebrate the successes that our students who graduate, even though they didn’t graduate in four years and three summers, that they did graduate. Let’s celebrate that and not label them because it took a little longer,“ she said
At the December school board meeting, Read suggested inviting the local legislative delegation to Polaris Evening Program “to see the real-life examples” of students who require extra time to graduate.
“I think that would be a great way for them to see the challenges but yet the opportunities that are out there for kids who graduate in more than four years but they are considered graduates,” she said.
All of the students supported her efforts and agreed they should be counted as graduates.
“They should still be counted if they graduate,” Anadio said. “Graduating is graduating, whether it be on time or later. Some people just can’t compare to others.”
Germick said her grandmother is coming from Ohio to watch her graduate.
“It’s really important to my family to see that and to have that memory,” she said. “I was supposed to graduate last year, but that’s still a memory and that’s still a thing that my family is willing to travel from Ohio to see because it’s that important.”
After graduation, Pedroza said she wants to attend a college in Savannah where she can earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology to work with children. Germick said she’d like to go to a nearby community college while continuing to work at her job. Lewis said she is awaiting her acceptance letter from Pellisippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., where she wants to pursue a career as a lawyer.
Anadio said he hopes to pursue a degree in history and minor in political science and eventually earn his doctorate and become a U.S. history teacher.
“We’ve got some big dreamers, too,” Ashley said. “Just because they may have some bumps in the road doesn’t mean they don’t want to go on and be successful.”