Kleady Armenta, 18, is one of 48 DeKalb High School students finishing her diploma in the DeKalb Ombudsman program. The alternative program offers a shorter school day and more one-on-one instruction to students struggling in the traditional high school setting. (Dana Herra/The Midweek)

Kleady Armenta, 18, is one of 48 DeKalb High School students finishing her diploma in the DeKalb Ombudsman program. The alternative program offers a shorter school day and more one-on-one instruction to students struggling in the traditional high school setting. (Dana Herra/The Midweek)

DeKALB – Kenny Veopraseuth was worried. In his junior year at DeKalb High School, Veopraseuth knew he wouldn’t have enough credits in a year to graduate. A night owl by nature, he had a hard time concentrating early in the day, and his schoolwork suffered for it.

“I wouldn’t have dropped out,” said Veopraseuth, now a 19-year-old senior scheduled to graduate in June. “I want to make my parents proud. But I had to do something because I knew I wouldn’t graduate, and I’d rather have my diploma than a GED.”

Veopraseuth talked to a counselor at the high school and was referred into DeKalb’s Ombudsman program, an alternative program operated by a private company under contract with the school district. Students in the program complete the state’s core standards curriculum, but attend class in small groups for only three hours a day.

“It’s awesome,” said Veopraseuth, who attends classes in the afternoons. “I’m more focused later in the day, and I have a job, so this works a lot better. You don’t get to hang out with your friends, like in the lunchroom and stuff, but getting my diploma is better than socializing.”

The students can complete their work in fewer hours because 80 percent of it is computer-based and they receive all of the assignments at the beginning of the semester, said Heather Wawak, director of the DeKalb Ombudsman center. That means it is up to students when or whether they take work home, and it is easy for them to work ahead if they want to.

There are three sessions per day at the Ombudsman center, with 16 students each, Wawak said. Three teachers staff the center.

“The student has to want to participate to be here. We believe in student choice,” Wawak said. “For students who were struggling and need extra support and who want a diploma, we have a good success rate.”

In 2011, 100 percent of the seniors enrolled at the center graduated, Wawak said. So far this year, 11 have already graduated early, and 16 are set to graduate in June. Because the program is an extension of the school district, the students can still participate in DHS extracurricular activities and can receive a diploma at the graduation ceremony with their class.

Kishwaukee Education Consortium also offers a route to graduation for students struggling in the mainstream.

The consortium offers an alternative education program to all DeKalb County high schools and Rochelle Township High School. About 150 students are currently enrolled in the alternative program, executive director Tom Crouch said. Most struggled with grades or truancy in mainstream high school.

Like Ombudsman, KEC offers small class sizes – about 12 students per class – and one-on-one attention. It also matches every student with an adult mentor and encourages participation in clubs and extracurricular activities, principal Derrick Burress said. Students at KEC are also considered students at their home schools, so transcripts show their diploma came from their home school.

Both programs are a blessing to educators, said Jessica Stewart, program coordinator for secondary support services at DeKalb District 428. Many of the students who end up in the programs would have dropped out without that option. According to the American Council on Education, dropouts are six to eight times more likely to be incarcerated than those with a high school diploma, are less likely to hold a full-time job and make less money on average.

“One-size-fits-all just doesn’t suit everybody,” Stewart said. “Without these options there would be a lot of frustration from a staff standpoint and a student standpoint. Some students’ needs are just so different.”

Ryan Garcia, 18, of Malta is scheduled to graduate from KEC in December. He struggled to keep up his grades in a mainstream high school, he said.

“I feel like a human being here,” he said. “At other schools, when I got bad grades I was treated like I was a bad person. Here, the teachers want to help me, not treat me like a discipline problem.”

Kleady Armenta, who is scheduled to graduate in June from the Ombudsman program, said she had always struggled with school, and when she became pregnant her junior year her family and friends advised her drop out and take the GED test. She said she’s glad a counselor referred her to Ombudsman.

“I can have a job, go to school for my diploma and still be a mom,” she said. “The teachers really help you. They can go over things until you understand.”

Teachers at both schools said there is no feeling to compare to watching a student who never thought they would graduate begin making plans for college or a career.

“It’s unbelievable,” Burress said. “To see these kids succeed, to see how proud they are and their parents are, it’s great.”