School gives students another chance

By Trina Trice

In order to ensure she'd graduate from high school, Kristin Wilkins, along with her brother Justin, made a difficult choice to live public schools behind.

The siblings are recent graduates of the Forest Park Street School, a home-based school for at-risk high school-aged youth.

The school is the "last chance" its students have of attaining a high school diploma.

The school began as a program that helped a high school drop-out earn General Equivalency Diploma, or GED.

When the program's former director Lois Collins retired, Marybeth Leavell, current director of Forest Park Street School, took over, but not without consulting students who were already in the program, first.

"I talked to the kids about what they wanted," Leavell said. "I thought they'd say we want more field trips, more pool tables. They said we want a real school. That was music to my ears."

Kristin Wilkins, who went straight from middle school to Forest Park Street School, said she "got into a lot of trouble in public school. I felt like there was too much prejudice and violence in public school.

"There's not a lot of authority in public schools ?cause there are too many students. They get into a lot of trouble" there.

Wilkins is seven months pregnant, she fought through her fatigue to finish school like she had hoped she would.

She is one of two Forest Park Street School graduates expecting a baby this summer.

"I know a lot of times girls that get pregnant wind up losing credits and getting behind," Leavell said. "We have flexibility with working with kids on their attendance needs."

The school can also accommodate students who have had difficulty staying in school.

"We couldn't make it at public schools, it just wasn't working out," Justin Wilkins said about himself and his sister. "I wasn't going to go to high school, because during the eighth grade I made all ?F's' and zeroes. Coming here, I make ?A's' and ?B's'.

Three years ago Jason Denny, 17, didn't think he'd ever be able to graduate from high school.

But Denny earned an official high school diploma Saturday, as did 10 others in the First Baptist Church chapel in Forest Park as part of the graduating class of the Forest Park Street School.

Denny felt he had to attend the school because "I didn't want to go to a different county to go to school," he said.

Denny, father of a 2-year-old son, had been in and out of trouble with the law. As a result, he was banned from attending a Clayton County public school. He even spent time in a boot camp, Leavell said.

The mother of Denny's son also attends the school.

"None of these kids could stay in public school," Leavell said. "Most of them are drop-outs or were involved with the law. This was their last resort. They're all considered high-risk."

Students at the school have a normal day like other public school students and must complete 22 credits to earn a diploma, Leavell said.

But there are differences that Forest Park Street School students appreciate.

"It's better than other schools," Denny said. "We got smaller classes which are better for the student teacher ratio. We don't have too much of a dress code; I'm allowed to wear my piercings."

About the school, Justin Wilkins said, "The students that went to Columbine, if they had a school like us, they probably wouldn't have shot up everyone."

The attention students get from teachers is crucial to their success, Leavell suggested.

With a 12:1 student to teacher ratio, students are able to get the extra help they need.

The $3,600 per student expenditure is possible due to grants and fellowships provided by such organizations as the Department of Human Resources, Safe and Drug Free Schools, Clayton County Commissioner's Office, the National Association of Street Schools, and the Bill Gates Foundation.

As for what some students will be doing after graduation, Kristin Wilkins plans to attend cosmetology school next spring. Brother Justin is getting a job to save money for a car and hopes to eventually go to college to study psychology. Fellow psychology enthusiast Denny plans to attend college for 10 years to become a psychiatrist so that he "can get phat paid."