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3:00 am
Mon October 1, 2012

"Dropout High": Where At-Risk Kids Get One Last Chance To Graduate

Flagstaff kids used to call it "Dropout High". Its real name is Ponderosa High and it's where at-risk kids are given one last chance to graduate. From the Changing America Desk in Flagstaff, Laurel Morales reports.

Jonathan Bronston would probably make a good linebacker. He's big...and intimidating. He's got a long rap sheet: drugs, gangbanging, grand theft auto. That's the one that landed him in jail. But at 20, this young Navajo man says he's changed. After seven years in the Crops gang, he quit this year.

"To get out of it, you get a beat down. Well, like, I'm big. When I got out of it no one didn't want to beat me up. "

He joined a gang in Phoenix when he was 13, then started one in Tuba City with Navajo kids. But he says he's done. Now he wants his diploma.

"Nothing good about gangbanging just beating up people. There's nothing right about beating up people because they're minding their own business. All the people I did that to. I feel sorry for that. Wish I could take it back but I can't, it happened."

Bronston's seen his niece and nephew graduate from Ponderosa and says now it's his turn. He's determined, too. He drives an hour and a half from the reservation to get to school each day.

Rachel Steagall has taught science at Ponderosa since the school opened eight years ago. But like all the staff there, she does a lot more than teach. She picks kids up from jail, testifies for them in court, gets them fed, takes them to a shelter and she helps them deal with major issues.

"I'm going to be a mom, I'm going to be a dad, I'm addicted to this, I'm being abused, I'm not safe, I have nowhere to live. Those are conversations we deal with everyday. We have unsafe kids trying to get to school because it's the only place that they're safe and then on top of it trying to learn."

Steagall and the staff at Ponderosa try to catch them when they fall. that's why the county built Ponderosa - to provide a safety net for kids that need extra attention to get them to graduate. The school is 60 percent Native American and 20 percent Latino - two groups with some of the worst graduation rates in the country. Steagall says the students actually enjoy coming to school because there are other kids like them here.

Principal Dave Roth shows off the school's solar panel, green house and meditation circle that students designed.

"Some of the trouble we have sometimes we have trouble getting students to graduate because they like being in school, it's a good connection for them, it's positive they have someone who listens to them and they don't want to leave. We have to sort of help them out the door a little bit."

There are definitely hard days for Roth, Steagall and the rest of the staff. Like today, one of the students I'm supposed to interview was locked up in juvenile detention But Steagall says she still has hope for him.

"We have hope for every single one because every kid - and I firmly believe that - every kid is going to have that moment when they're going to turn it around. It might not be now. I have to believe that moment is going to be there for them."

And each year the school graduates more and more students. Every time a former graduate comes in to share a bit of good news - a job, a college acceptance letter, a new baby - Steagall has them speak to the class. She says it makes success more tangible to the students. But, she knows it's ultimately up to them.

"At the end of the day, I can't always be there for them and they're going to have to make that choice and they're going to have to make that choice unfortunately under a lot of pressure not to make the right choice."

Former gang member, Jonathan Bronston has made a choice. He graduates in December. Bronston plans to go on to trade school to be a welder like his dad and uncles.