FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Painfully shy was how Kathleen Taylor remembered Jaquwan Norris when they met last June.
Norris was one of 25 Gov. Thomas Johnson High School students who took part in a summer program called New Horizons Frederick that provided academic support and work opportunities to homeless high schoolers. Taylor, a music teacher at TJ High, served as a program mentor, supervising about a dozen of those students during their morning classes.
Norris never made eye contact and kept his head down as he spoke, in short, mumbled responses that made it difficult to hear him, Taylor said Thursday.
And though he warmed up to her in the intervening six weeks they spent together, she never anticipated he would take her up on her suggestion to join the choir class she taught during the academic year, much less that he would perform a rap during the class open mic opportunity. Even more unimaginable was the day when Norris voluntarily shared with his peers the intimate details of his struggle with homelessness.
Most of his classmates teared up as they listened to him recount his experiences, including the death of his father and recent years living in a homeless shelter, she said. Taylor did, too.
“It really hit hard on me,” she said. “To think that someone so young is facing those kind of circumstances, going to school, living in a shelter.”
These kinds of barriers can make achieving academic success much harder for homeless students, national studies and research have shown. In Frederick County Public Schools, 69 percent of homeless students graduate from high school, compared with 96 percent of the general population, according to information shared by County Executive Jan Gardner.
Bridging that gap is the intent behind the New Horizons Frederick program, a summer program that offers academic learning and work opportunities to homeless Frederick students. The program in its first year served 25 homeless students at TJ High School, including Norris.
This summer, the program will serve nearly twice as many students from across three schools, according to details announced in a public information briefing Thursday.
About 45 students from TJ, Tuscarora and Frederick high schools have signed up to participants in this year’s summer program, which begins June 26, according to Ed Hinde, executive director of the Student Homelessness Initiative Partnership of Frederick County (SHIP). SHIP runs New Horizons in conjunction with FCPS.
Six of the students, including Norris, are return participants who signed up for a second year.
Like last year, students will take classes in the morning through the district’s Virtual School, followed by an afternoon of work at a local business through Frederick County Workforce Services. A variety of funding sources — $35,000 from the county through its fiscal 2018 community partnership grants budget plus donations from The Community Foundation of Frederick County, the Rotary Club of Carroll Creek and FCPS — will cover the cost of the expanded programming, Hinde said.
Through a separate funding source that Hinde declined to identify on Thursday, SHIP will also launch a year-round version of the program across four high schools. A team of five counselors, led by two full-time social workers, will provide one-on-one case management and support services to homeless students at TJ, Tuscarora, Frederick and Walkersville high schools come September, Hinde said after the public announcement.
There will also be an after-school job component to the year-round program through Workforce Services, he said.
“Our goal is to help these kids have all the resources they need to graduate high school,” he said.
He emphasized the importance of a high school diploma in helping homeless students overcome their socioeconomic circumstances, calling it the “single most important predictor of success for the rest of our lives.”
Taylor also spoke to the value of the program, particularly for students who might struggle academically. She recalled how the students she mentored were drawn to the nontraditional model offered by the virtual classes, many arriving even before she did in their eagerness to start their work.
“It was cool to watch them go from being the ones with a chip on their shoulder about school to being the first ones in the classroom,” she said.
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