Despite Tragedy, A Promise Fulfilled On A Different Path To A Diploma At Mashpee High

Mashpee High School afternoon school student Jenna Santos with teacher Mike Mannix.ELSA H. PARTAN/ENTERPRISE - Mashpee High School afternoon school student Jenna Santos with teacher Mike Mannix.

Graduating from high school is an accomplishment for any young person. Jenna L. Santos is one 18-year-old who has defeated overwhelming obstacles to complete her degree from Mashpee High School.

With a fashionable blond streak dyed into her hair and a winning smile, Jenna looks no different from her peers. But as one of just 14 students in Mashpee High School’s alternative afternoon program, she has completed her junior and senior courses largely between the hours of 3 PM and 6 PM, sitting in front of a school-issued laptop computer.

She has done it while grieving the loss of both parents.

Jenna’s father, Joel Santos, died of cancer in December 2010 at age 54. Jenna was 15 years old, a sophomore. During his illness and after his death, she missed weeks of school at a time.

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“I must have missed 100 days of school,” between her sophomore and junior years, she said in an interview this week at the high school. “There was no way I could keep doing it.”

By the spring of 2012, she decided to give the little-known “PM program” a try. Started in 2003 at Mashpee High School, the program allows students in their junior or senior years to take their courses online through a state-approved curriculum aligned to national standards called Class.com. Students who earn the required credits receive a diploma from Mashpee High School, the same as any other student.

Since 2003, the program has graduated about 90 students from MHS, many of whom would have otherwise dropped out. Teen mothers, students struggling with addiction, students in legal trouble, and students with severe social phobias have graduated through the program. There is an equal number of boys and girls in the program on average. This year, five of the program’s 14 students, including Jenna, will graduate with the Class of 2013. Another five are on track to get their diplomas later in the summer.

The program means coming to school starting at 3 PM, when the halls have cleared an hour earlier and the janitors are wheeling barrels of trash past darkened classrooms.

It means passing in every single assignment because the computer program does not cut you any slack. With 63 courses on offer, it means a certain amount of academic isolation: you’re probably the only one in the room taking Algebra II.
For help, students lean on the teacher in charge of the program, Michael P. Mannix. He supervises the students, who huddle over their laptops each afternoon in the large, first-floor classroom.

“Mannix will do his best,” Jenna said, gesturing to the salt-and-pepper-haired teacher sitting next to her. “But you have to look up all the answers by yourself.”

For Mr. Mannix, what was supposed to be a one-year position in 2005 to “get his feet wet” in a new school district has become meaningful work.

“It’s the turnaround part,” he said. “They want their diploma, and we just stick by them. I love when the kids start finding their purpose, when they haven’t ever before.”

The guidance counselor assigned to all the program’s students, Patricia Farrell, called Mr. Mannix the “driving force” behind the program’s success.

“He’ll go to bat for students,” she said.

When the committee that reviews student cases is considering kicking a student out of the program because he or she is not doing the work, Mr. Mannix will redouble his efforts to make it work, sometimes by allowing the student to come in at 2 PM to make up for lost time.

“He even tutored a kid in the evening a few years ago,” Ms. Farrell said.

For Jenna, she found she needed Mr. Mannix the most after her mother, Alice Campbell, died of cancer in October. She was 49.

At 17, Jenna was an orphan.

“He was my shoulder to cry on,” she said. “He has picked me up to come to school. He has cut up his sandwich and shared it. He threw me a birthday party here at school.”
No one is quite sure how it happened, but in the confusion after her mother’s death, Jenna did not have a permanent place to stay. She lived alone for more than a month in the apartment they had shared, a situation she found “horrible.”

When the landlord asked for the rent, Jenna explained that she did not have a checkbook. She had to move out.

As a homeless student, Jenna is entitled to transportation to Mashpee from wherever she is living, according to the laws of the commonwealth. She moved to an aunt’s house in Abington in January, where she still lives. When the Mashpee school officials realized that Jenna was having trouble getting someone to drive her the nearly 50 miles to school, they arranged for a Cape Cod Collaborative car to pick her up three days a week. She could log in to class from home on the other two days, they decided.

With only a few months of coursework left, it would have been unethical to tell Jenna, born and raised in Mashpee, that she had to finish her degree in Abington, according to Mr. Mannix. Abington would not have let her graduate, requiring additional courses in the fall.

“We’re not going to let you go,” he said. “It would be a sin.”

Further, Jenna’s determination to graduate from high school this year was anchored in a promise.

Jenna’s mother wanted so deeply to live to see her daughter graduate, that the guidance counselor, Ms. Farrell, located the spare cap and gown that the guidance office keeps on hand. One day in late October, she printed up a diploma that indicated that Jenna “will graduate” with her class.

The following day, Ms. Farrell got a tearful phone call from Jenna’s aunt. Alice Campbell was likely in her last hours of life. Jenna put on the cap and gown and showed the diploma to her mother at Falmouth Hospital. Jenna is the first in her family to graduate from high school. Her mother cried with joy. She died that day.

Since her mother’s death, Jenna has set aside her idea of going to beauty school. She will go to college with the hopes of working in human services.

“I don’t want to waste my life,” she said. “My mom only got 49 years. I don’t know how many years I will get.”

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