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Press release: High School Alternatives Prove Successful in Decreasing Dropout Rate for Passaic Students

For immediate release: July 6, 2022
Contact: Lori Perlow, 856-701-3170 


High School Alternatives Prove Successful in Decreasing Dropout Rate for Passaic Students


In this photo: Zayonna Potts (center) joyfully receives her high school diploma at the graduation ceremony which took place on June 23, 2022 at Boverini Stadium in Passaic, NJ.

WAYNE, NJ – While traditional high school settings lead many students to graduation in four years, there is a growing number of students who learn and thrive in other settings and with non-traditional schedules. In a successful partnership between the Northern Region Educational Services Commission and the Passaic City School District, both entities are working to reduce the local dropout rate by keeping at-risk students in school and helping others to re-enter the public education system with the goal of expeditiously obtaining their high school diploma.  

Two alternate pathways exist for struggling Passaic City students to earn their high school diplomas. For nearly 15 years, HOPE Academy, located in the heart of Passaic City, provides a daytime alternative high school program for at-risk students who are in jeopardy of not meeting the requirements to graduate from high school. Students enrolled in this program thrive in the smaller setting created by the HOPE Academy team of educators and staff who support the whole child no matter what life challenges they’re faced with.

“Students who come to HOPE Academy are given a clean slate as well as unending emotional and academic support to complete their high school requirements. At their core, our students want to be successful, but a traditional school setting may not be conducive to this if they are dealing with academic or personal challenges,” says Ayanna Thorne, director of alternative and non-traditional programs for Northern Region Educational Services Commission.

In January 2022, Northern Region Educational Services Commission and the Passaic City School District launched a second program to help students get to the finish line of obtaining their high school diplomas. Ascend Academy, a flexible twilight program for under-credited students who are forced to juggle work and family obligations, was launched at the same location as HOPE Academy. Recognizing that the site was empty during the late afternoon and evening hours, this provided another opportunity to reach even more students.

Early in the pandemic, when schools were shifting between in-person and online learning, a population of older high school students were faced with real-world decisions such as staying home to care for younger siblings and babies of their own, working to earn critical dollars for their families or attending school. In Passaic City, where 99.9% of the students are economically disadvantaged, many students chose family and survival over their education.

As administrators from Passaic City Schools and the Northern Region Educational Services Commission reviewed data regarding the number of students who hadn’t returned to school this year, the numbers were alarming and they immediately began to brainstorm a solution to re-engage this population of students. The two districts worked diligently in the fall months to develop a program to bring students back into an educational setting to complete their high school education without sacrificing the critical needs of their families.  Ascend Academy students fulfill state-mandated requirements to graduate from high school by taking classes from 4:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m. in a more accommodating setting. Students must be recommended by a school counselor to ensure they meet entrance criteria for this unique program. Students are offered a hybrid learning environment providing flexibility to attend classes in person or online for added convenience. The program includes many of the traditional support services that students would have access to during the school day such as certified teachers, a school counselor and a social worker. All students work toward completing the New Jersey Department of Education’s graduation requirements.

Together, HOPE Academy and Ascend Academy paved the way for more than 70 students to earn their high school diplomas last month. “Word is spreading quickly about our programs as demand increases for programs that can meet the needs of all students. We have parents knocking on our doors from surrounding communities wanting more information. The demand is there and we’re here to meet the needs of all students,” stated Ayanna Thorne.

Zyonna Potts of Passaic City, pictured above, is one of the first students accepted into Ascend Academy. “Making the decision to be part of the Ascend program gave me a new sense of empowerment to take control of my future. It's provided me with the right resources and influence to invest in myself,” stated Potts.

“Working together to offer a program for students with the most extenuating circumstances is among the highest priorities of both districts. Many of the students we serve at Ascend Academy have endured hardships such as losing parents to COVID or being forced to choose employment over their own education,” stated Dr. Nicholas Vancheri, superintendent of Northern Region Educational Services Commission.

“From a social emotional lens, we are meeting students where they are in their learning,” stated Sandra Montañez-Diodonet, superintendent of Passaic Schools. “The Board is thrilled to support students who, as a result of circumstance, need an alternative path to a high school diploma,” said Christina Shratz, president of the Passaic Schools’ board of education.

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 About Northern Regional Educational Services Commission (NRESC)

The Northern Regional Educational Services Commission (NRESC) is a non-profit, state-approved public school district that provides educational, business, technology, and transportation services to partner school districts throughout the northern region of New Jersey. The NRESC serves more than 80 entities in seven counties.

NRESC also operates the Second Home Day Habilitation Center for adults with special needs in Wayne and provides instructional support to children with special needs who reside at the Phoenix Center in Wanaque.  The NRESC’s mission is to offer exceptional solutions for specific educational challenges.