DeKALB – Cody Schmitt used to hate school.

A year-and-a-half ago, before attending Ombudsman Learning Center in DeKalb, he didn’t see himself graduating, let alone going to college.
After completing courses through the alternative learning school, he’ll not only graduate with the DeKalb High School class of 2011, but he’s also pursuing a degree in criminal justice at Kishwaukee College.

“It saved my life,” he said.

Ten DeKalb School District 428 students who were once at risk of dropping out of school earned enough credits to graduate on time through the Ombudsman Learning Center, and they were recognized for their academic achievements Friday – the day before their graduation ceremony.

The school helps students who are falling behind on academics, have behavioral problems or low school attendance, said Heather Wawak, director of Ombudsman. School counselors make recommendations for students to attend Ombudsman, but Wawak said the decision to attend is ultimately up to the students.

“The student has to want to do this,” she said. “Everyone sees this as a privilege. They see this as a good opportunity.”

Graduate Miguel Aburto said he wasn’t doing well in school and decided to give Ombudsman a try. The outcome, he said, was better than he expected.
“I’m the first to graduate from my family,” he said. “… I actually accomplished what I wanted.”

Wawak believes Ombudsman provides a more comfortable learning atmosphere for students who struggle in a more traditional classroom atmosphere. She said many students came to the program dreading school, and after entering the program, they find they actually like learning.

“I’ve had students who say they didn’t consider going to college until now,” Wawak said.

Aburto plans to start school this fall at Kishwaukee College in the criminal justice program. Going to college wasn’t on his mind a little more than a year ago when he was still at DeKalb High School.

“I always doubted myself at the old school and coming here really helped me,” he said.

Heather Wawak hugs Faith Coulter, a student who graduated from the program, during a recognition ceremony Friday. (<a href=

Nicole Weskerna)” width=”300″ height=”168″ class=”size-medium wp-image-290″ /> Heather Wawak hugs Faith Coulter, a student who graduated from the program, during a recognition ceremony Friday. (Nicole Weskerna – nweskerna@daily-chronicle.com)

Now that she’s got her diploma, Ombudsman graduate Faith Coulter is also college-bound and hopes to get a degree from Kishwaukee College. She wants to become a substance abuse counselor. But before August 2008, she didn’t think she’d graduate from high school.

“I just love Ombudsman,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Schmitt said the program also changed his opinion about furthering his education, and said school is something he now enjoys. He’d planned to join the rest of his class in today’s graduation ceremony for DeKalb High School.

“I’m excited,” Schmitt said. “I never thought I’d be able to walk with my class.”