JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – When Ed Dreikorn is trying to make connections with Greater Johnstown High School students he looks for little ways to start conversations about subjects that interest them.
If he knows an athlete who is not particularly fond of reading, Dreikorn might suggest checking out a Sports Illustrated article that he recently saw. Or, if a student has a child, then simply asking to see a photo of the baby can bring a smile to the young parent.
“The most challenging thing is to get a rapport with those kids,” Dreikorn said. “That's really fun. I like that. There's always something you can find to strike up with a student to get their attention.”
The goal is to develop a relationship in order to better understand the students' needs and wants as they go through Greater Johnstown and to help prepare them for their academic or professional futures. Dreikorn carries out that role as a counselor with the Trojan College Access Program, which was started during the 2007-2008 academic year. At the time, about 40% of Greater Johnstown students entered postsecondary education institutions or the military, according to the district. That number is now around 70%.
“We had to explore this with the students to show them there was a possibility that they could go to college and the advantages of going to college,” Dreikorn said.
Trojan College Access Program is open to all GJHS students and helps provide insight into the requirements for joining a college, trade school, the military or workforce after graduation.
And, while the counselors and other staff members can provide important information about grades, the cost of college, time management, scholarships and academic resumes, Principal Michael Dadey said developing personal relationships remains key.
“I think that is the most important part to actually have that relationship, so we can help steer those students, and those students have an idea of where they're going after they graduate from here – be it a four-year college, a two-year college, for an associate's degree, a tech college, the military,” Dadey said. “Wherever they go, we want to make sure that every student that graduates from Johnstown High School has a career path lined up for them in one of those directions.”
Greater Johnstown offers a dual-enrollment program where students can take college courses through the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, Mount Aloysius College, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, while still in high school.
The program provides students with an opportunity to get a feel for college before actually attending full time, save on tuition costs and shorten the time they need to obtain degrees.
“We have seen a lot of success of students moving onto college because they've had that exposure from the high school years,” Superintendent Amy Arcurio said. “That has been one of the things I think was a pretty big game-changer in our work over the past seven, eight years.”
Even while in high school, students can earn associate’s degrees from Penn Highlands Community College.
“The Penn Highlands option is discussed with the students,” school counselor Danielle Hardison said. “Grades-wise, if they're eligible to go on that track then we pull them in and give them an orientation and they learn about how they can be a part of the associate's degree program.”
In May 2019, 28 Johnstown students graduated from high school already with associate's degrees from Penn Highlands.
The city's poverty rate is so crushing that, dating back to the 2014-2015 academic year, the district has been able to participate in the state's Community Eligibility Provision program, which provides free and reduced lunches to all students who attend.
And that is just one of many challenges that negatively impact a child's ability to get an education.
Teachers, counselors an administrators often find themselves trying to help students who lack a stable family environment caused by parents' legal troubles, lack of food and adequate clothing, and homelessness.
“It's really difficult because these kids are so stuck on survival on a day-to-day basis that it's really difficult to get them to see that there's ways to fix that and make survival easy if you want to get an education,” said Cynthia Ahlborn, who works with the district's 21st century vocational programming.
Greater Johnstown School District also has what Arcurio described as a “transient” element to its population, which impacts all grades.
For example, during the 2017-2018 school year, about 400 changes occurred at West Side Elementary School between students enrolling or withdrawing, per Arcurio.
“No matter how awesome my teachers and staff are that is totally out of their control and a huge variable in our success,” Arcurio said.
Some of the older transient students come to the district toward the end of their high school careers when they are behind academically and trying to adjust to a different cultural environment.
“A lot of these kids come in from out of town,” Pete Vizza, a Trojan College Access Program counselor, said. “They'll come in with a Philadelphia attitude. I understand that. But you're not in Philadelphia any more. We don't hammer them, but we try to assimilate them into a way of thinking and acting that's a little bit more appropriate. They'll say, 'I'm from Philadelphia.' I'll say, 'You were from Philadelphia. Do this now.” And they'll, for the most part, do it.”
But through dealing with all of the challenges – poverty, transience, family issues, the day-to-day stresses of high school and picking an academic path – the approach to helping students remains the same, according to school counselor Megan Zadzilko.
“You just help them every step of the way,” Zadzilko said.