All ten graduates at Tri-County Schools’ commencement last Wednesday shared one thing in common: they all had at least one moment when they thought they might not graduate.
“I was so close to dropping out so many times,” said Raven Fenlason, who stayed back a year due to the amount of school she skipped.
Holding her diploma after the ceremony, she’s giddy. Standing in the middle of the cafeteria that is serving as a reception hall, she’s twirling around trying to hug and talk to everyone who comes within five feet of her and thank any staff member who ventures within 10 feet.
“It’s just so surreal,” she said. “I spent so long thinking that I couldn’t do this.”
Next year, Fenalson will attended Greenfield Community College. Six more of her classmates will also be continuing their education next year.
“I am really, really excited to go to Greenfield Community College,” said Fenalson. “I never thought I would want to go to school.”
Tri-County Schools, located in Easthampton, is a school for students who have emotional or behavioral problems, according to school counselor Thomas Moore. Many of the students have been physically abused, emotionally abused, in the foster care system, or a combination of all three.
When Moore started working at Tri-County Schools three years ago, no one went to college.
“I would hear teachers say things like ‘I doubt these kids can go to college,’” said Moore.
That was when Moore, who was trained as a psychological counselor, not a college counselor, decided to change the dialogue by launching a college prep program for the students.
The year after he started the program, four out of seven graduates into college were admitted into college. But his success was short lived, as all of them ended up dropping out.
“It was a rude awakening,” said Moore. “I learned it is not enough to get them into school. That’s the easy part.”
Since then Moore has changed his approach. In order to get students interested in college, he drives them to different campuses to visit, tempting them with a day off from school. Students go twice their junior year, and as many times as it takes their senior year, he said.
“I would walk them around different campuses five, six, seven, even eight times trying to pre-teach the environment,” said Moore.
After so many students dropped out, Moore realized that the students were overwhelmed by the campuses and unable to find the resources that they needed. Therefore, he now emphasizes connecting them with the services they need, before they start classes.
Alex Fox, who will be attending Holyoke Community College in the fall, is going blind. According to Moore, Fox’s encroaching blindness made him “too scared” to consider going to college.
But, Moore did not give up. Together they visited HCC a total of eight times, before Fox decided he wanted to enroll after meeting with HCC’s Disability & Deaf Services about his blindness.
“A couple of years ago, I had no intention of going to college,” said Fox.
This was a theme reiterated throughout the hour long ceremony held in the Tri-County Schools gym where approximately 130 friends, family members, state officials and Tri-County staff members watched the graduates receive their diplomas.
Stephen Dion, the Tri-County Schools senior director, talked about the difference between failure and quitting during his speech directed at the seniors. Calling some of the seniors out by name, he briefly talked about some of their struggles and times they thought they would not graduate.
“You can fail and will continue to fail,” he said. “But if you continue to try, that’s what makes the difference.”
Fendalson agreed that trying was the most important thing.
According to Moore, when she first arrived at the school two years ago, she would sit at a desk at the end of a hallway and swear at the staff all day.
“I was really rude and disrespectful to everyone,” said Fendalson. “Then I got to know them, and I learned they are nice, caring and sweet people,”
In a speech during the ceremony, she apologized to the staff to a collective chuckle and encouraged students to give Tri-County Schools a chance.
Stephen Marion, who received the student of the year award, has high hopes for his post-high school education. Marion plans to attend HCC in the fall, and hopes to transfer to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in two years to study civil engineering.
“This school gave me the ropes to learn how to walk again,” said Marion.
Marison also received two scholarships totaling $1,300 from Mohawk, his home school district. According to Moore, Marison is the first Tri-County student to receive a scholarship from his home district.
Charles LeDuc, who will attend HCC to study Criminal Justice Assurity and Security, received the student citizen award.
Out of the nine students from last year’s graduating class who went to community colleges, five of them are still enrolled, according to Moore. During the reception, Moore had a stack of business cards that he was handing out to parents and students, encouraging them to call him if they needed anything.
“If he changes his mind about not wanting to go to college, call me,” Moore said to one parent, who had come over to offer her thanks after the ceremony.
But Moore has a good feeling about this class’s chance of success.
“These kids should be good to go,” he said. “There is very little that can stand in their way.”
The following students graduated from Tri-County Schools on June 19: Lucius Burrell, Raven Fenlason, Alex Fox, Charles LeDuc, Stephen Marion, Stephen Maxwell, Yasmine Merced, Brandin Paradis, Joshua Suriel-Montero, and Thu VanTran.