Like thousands of others, Yesenia Velez will graduate from high school in a few weeks and start working on her college degree in the fall. However, that’s where Yesenia’s similarity to most high school students ends. At 16, after getting pregnant, she dropped out of Salem High School. She lost that pregnancy to a miscarriage, but didn’t return to school for the next two years. Returning to high school at 19 didn’t seem realistic until she received a call from a friend telling her about a new high school for students struggling to make their way in the traditional public school system. Today she has two children, 2-year-old Eliahnie, and 1-year-old Eddie, and is about to get her diploma. “I’m doing this for me,” Yesenia says, “but I’m also doing this for them. I want to be a good role model.”
The Salem Community Charter School, just finishing its second year in existence, offers a unique educational program designed for students like Yesenia. Traditional public schools can offer support for students who face one or two challenges, such as a learning disability or poverty. However, SCCS students average eight different risk factors, including homelessness, extreme poverty, mental health issues, drug addiction, unstable family relationships, or pregnancy. “It’s heartbreaking to see what these students face each and every day, but it’s inspiring at the same time,” says SCCS principal Jessica Yurwitz. “At SCCS we help our students get the support they need in the classroom and in their lives outside of school. We give them a chance to succeed. And they do succeed!”
Yesenia agrees, “They understand how hard it is to be in school when you have kids. They’ve helped me find the help I need, even baby clothes.” At 19, graduation from high school seemed impossible, but now at 21 she’s about to get her degree (after getting top marks on her MCAS) and is confident that she will go on to get a college degree and become a pediatric nurse.
Yesenia isn’t unique at SCCS. She will be joined by 10 classmates who will get their degrees as part of the second graduating class. “That might sound like a small number, but our school is small. We are actually graduating almost 25 percent of our students,” Yurwitz says. SCCS is small by design, allowing for the very personal attention and high level of support needed to help these students. Working in a very cramped space in the Museum Place Mall has limited their ability to grow. “We’ll be moving into new space shortly and that’s when we can look at bringing in more students,” says Yurwitz. “There is a real need for a program to serve the needs of these students and we have a waiting list for fall.”
SCCS combines small classrooms, individual attention, access to support services, and an approach to academics called “competency-based education” where students’ progress is not measured by how much time they sit in a classroom, but their ability to show competency in different academic areas. “What we find with our students is they often have ‘holes’ in their knowledge. It’s not that they don’t know all of algebra, but they might have missed a particular piece of that class and therefore can’t pass traditional comprehensive tests. We’re able to see where those holes are and address them.” Competency-based education is starting to catch on in public schools around the country and even at some colleges. “We want them to show for what they do know, rather than forcing them to repeat lessons they’ve already learned,” explains Yurwitz.
Edwin Baez was one of the lucky ones to get into the first class at SCCS. Like Yesenia, Edwin will be graduating this summer. He too has had to balance school with raising a child. On top of that, he works 15 hours a week after school training dogs. He thinks the key to SCCS is the way the staff approach students at the school. “They treat us like adults. We’re in charge of our own lives. The responsibility is on us.” Like Yesenia, Edwin has gotten more than educational instruction while at SCCS, he’s gotten support for all aspects of his life. Through connections made at SCCS, he is participating in a fathers support group at Journeys of Hope and has gotten other help from Catholic Charities. “Students support each other here. We all have different stories, but you can always find something you can relate to. You form a bond.”
“There are so many more Yesenias and Edwins out there. Students who if given the right support can turn their lives around and find a path to success,” urges Yurwitz. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why Salem needs a school like SCCS.” SCCS is accepting applications for fall and people can reach SCCS by calling 978-825-3470.
Tom Torello is a member of the Board of Trustees at the Salem Community Charter School. This is one in a series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.