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Lauded Charlestown High program in jeopardy

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“I always hated school, to be honest . . . but I had men that I could look up to and get knowledge from,” Luis Aponte, now a student at Northeastern University, said of the Diploma Plus program in Charlestown.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

When Paul Holmes entered Charlestown High School in 2010, his education was a low priority, and already he was two years behind classmates.

"I either didn't show up, often, or I showed up late, or I just didn't want to be there," said Holmes, now 22, of Roslindale. "I showed no interest in the homework, or I just didn't get it done at all."

Holmes's life turned around after he entered Charlestown High's Diploma Plus program, which has helped hundreds of struggling students graduate by building a supportive community and allowing them to study in small classes, at their own pace. For Holmes, the program directed him toward art school to study digital animation.


Observers say Diploma Plus has been a success, the very type of initiative a city with too many struggling students should be embracing. But despite accolades, the 7-year-old program is in jeopardy.

Charlestown High faces a deficit for the next school year of more than $300,000, even after $260,000 was restored to the school's budget as a result of Mayor Martin J. Walsh's recent decision to rescind major cuts to city high schools. Since leaders of individual schools have discretion on what to cut, maintaining Diploma Plus would mean sacrificing resources for special education students or those learning English, according to Sung-Joon Pai, the program's director.

"Unless we get a little more money, it's not possible to restore it," Pai said.

Diploma Plus students, alumni, parents, and staff have been among the most vocal opponents of cuts since Superintendent Tommy Chang revealed the district's multimillion-dollar budget deficit in January.

When about 3,650 students walked out of classes March 7 to protest the cuts, about 35 Diploma Plus students participated, Pai said.

First-year student Netera Mitchell, 17, testified at a School Committee meeting last week that he is thriving in Diploma Plus after a charter school and a district school failed to engage him academically.


"I struggled my whole eighth-grade year, because being in a large classroom setting, I wasn't getting the help I needed, and I was constantly getting made fun of because I was held back twice," Mitchell said. "The classroom, as well as the school, became a hostile environment to me . . . and I felt like less of a person."

Parents and former students say Diploma Plus has kept young people in school and set them on track for success — rather than crime, prison, or even death.

"I only have one child, so to see my son, to see a young black male that hasn't been incarcerated . . . out there just doing the best that he can, that makes me prouder every day," said Celestine Payne, mother of Paul Holmes.

Students, who mostly come from Charlestown High, are recommended by teachers who see them struggling. They must be at least 16 and have a history of setbacks in mainstream classes — most have failed at least one year, often more. Some have been failing since elementary school.

Almost all are black and Latino, and many come from difficult family circumstances. They face some of the greatest challenges at a school where most students have seen hardship.

Almost 84 percent of Charlestown High's student population is considered "high needs" by the state, meaning they come from low-income families, have disabilities, or are learning English.


Paul Holmes credits the Diploma Plus program with turning his life around.John Tlumacki

In Diploma Plus, students learn at their own pace. Teachers grade them on mastering material rather than answering correctly on the first try or turning in work on time, and they do not require students to repeat a full course if they fail — only the material they did not learn, Pai said.

That does not mean it is easy, according to Pai. Unlike alternative education programs that make graduation more accessible by lowering standards, he said, Diploma Plus sets high expectations.

Its competency-based model is one of few in the city, along with the Boston Day and Evening Academy and two schools run by the antipoverty group Action for Boston Community Development.

"It doesn't allow a student to fail," said Ryan Gunter, 21, who graduated from Diploma Plus in 2014 and is attending Roxbury Community College part time while working in a music production group. "It lets the student go at his own pace, whether he's really good at something or whether he's really poor at something."

Such educational opportunities are critical to helping young people graduate and preparing them for college or the workforce, according to Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a nonprofit that connects public schools with community organizations, government, and businesses to reduce dropout rates and improve workforce development.

"The Diploma Plus program has kept young people in school, gotten them diplomas, and that saves enormous costs to the individual student, society, and the taxpayer," Sullivan said. "It's too bad it's not all on the same balance sheet."


The curriculum engages students through explorations of contemporary issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. When there are behavior issues, teachers address them through restorative justice practices that focus on conflict resolution, not punishment.

Charlestown High established its Diploma Plus program in 2009, through a partnership with the Boston nonprofit group of the same name. Their goal was to lower the school's high dropout rate — it was then above 17 percent. The rate declined to 5.6 percent for 2014 but rose last year to 9 percent.

Charlestown High does not keep separate graduation data for its Diploma Plus program, but Pai said on average, about two-thirds of the program's seniors graduate each year.

Pai added, though, that the number does not tell the full story of Diploma Plus' success. Some students who enter the program choose to take the General Educational Development test rather than earn the credits necessary for a traditional diploma.

Luis Aponte, 21, got his GED, but he credits Diploma Plus with helping him focus on academics despite family turmoil and a period of homelessness. The Roxbury resident, whose father left home when Aponte was 3 or 4, said he found role models among his teachers.

"I always hated school, to be honest . . . but I had men that I could look up to and get knowledge from," he said. "They never stop believing . . . and they look like you. . . . It helps to see somebody who knows your struggles and walks in your shoes."


Aponte is enrolled in Northeastern University's Foundation Year program, which offers academic credit and support services to freshmen from Boston schools who have struggled academically. Without Diploma Plus, he said, he would have met one of three fates.

"It would be gun-trafficking, gang-banging, or death."

Despite such testimonials, the program's fate remains uncertain.

The district provides a $91,000 supplemental allocation to support Diploma Plus, but the program costs $500,000 a year. Charlestown High leaders must decide among competing priorities, and the school, with its large proportion of special-needs students, has plenty of those.

A preliminary budget submitted to the district before the mayor rescinded high school cuts did not include Diploma Plus. But Superintendent Chang said last week that his team is "optimistic" that it can be saved.

"They should be able to bring back the program," Chang said, "but ultimately that is a school site decision."

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.