Pocahontas County High School Option Pathway teacher Emily McLaughlin stands with one of the several murals in her classroom which offer students encouragement as they work toward their high school equivalency diplomas. This mural was painted by Cheryl McLaughlin Beverage. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Everyone can relate when a teenager complains that high school is hard. The requirements may have changed through the years, but the pressure to succeed remains the same.

For years, if a student got tired of school or decided they couldn’t handle the pressure anymore, they simply dropped out. Some of those dropouts went on to get a GED, but more often than not, they entered the workforce without a degree.

Taking issue with the dropout numbers and the stigma of the GED test, the West Virginia Department of Education established Option Pathway – a new way to keep students in school and help them get a high school equivalency diploma.

Pocahontas County High School implemented the program in 2012 and. since then, has seen an increase in students receiving their diplomas.

Three years ago, Emily McLaughlin became the Option Pathway teacher and has focused all her energy on helping her students reach the goal of earning their diplomas.

“They created this program because they saw that dropouts were increasing and these kids were leaving, but they didn’t have a trade or skill to be able to be successful in the workplace,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin works closely with guidance counselor Linda Beverage, graduation coach Jerry Dale and attendance liaison Lori Doolittle to get at-risk students to join the program and not completely drop out of school.

“There are three different categories within the Option Pathway program that you can qualify for,” McLaughlin said. “There’s one that is, obviously, the one we want them all to go into which they would consider the high school diploma route. They consider it the actual Option Pathway.”

That first level is where the students complete a CTE [Career and Technical Education] class and they pass all five of the task tests required by the state. If the student succeeds, they receive the equivalency diploma.

The second level is considered credit recovery. This is more for a student who is behind in one core class – math, English/language arts, science or social studies. They can take a pre-test in McLaughlin’s class and, if they pass, they can move on to take a test in Greenbrier County, and if they pass that, the credit is recovered and they can graduate as if they passed the regular class.

The third option is just a high school equivalency. It is for students who are so fed up with school and although they have not completed in a CTE field, if they pass the five tests and go on to Greenbrier County and pass the five state tests, they get the high school equivalency, or GED.

“I’ve had four or five do that one,” McLaughlin said of the levels. “I really, strongly push the Option Pathway program and doing your high school diploma and really finishing through that.”

The program isn’t just for anybody. There are certain requirements students have to meet before they can choose Option Pathway.

“This program is set up for students who are at-risk of not graduating or of dropping out, and also, if they’re so far behind,” McLaughlin said. “The big thing about this program is they have to meet certain levels as far as academics. They have to meet a certain grade point average. They have to be performing at certain levels to be eligible.”

McLaughlin also prefers that they are seniors. She will open the program to juniors if they are highly at-risk, but she has noticed that there isn’t as much of a sense of urgency when they know they have two years instead of one to complete the tests.

“I don’t love to have a two-year student because I teach five subject areas, so I have to touch on all five of those, and if they know that they only have five tests, it’s like a holding tank and they procrastinate,” she explained. Whereas, any other time, it’s like, ‘okay, we’ve got to get on the ball; we’ve got to do this’ and they know it’s crunch time because we have one year.”

Before Option Pathway began, McLaughlin said the GED option was more of a place to stick students, and they basically spent all their time on the computer trying to pass tests. Now, it’s more of an interactive class where McLaughlin is giving instruction, as well as preparing students for the five tests.

“There’s a limited amount of computer time because a lot of schools were just sticking kids in there, and they didn’t really need it, but they didn’t know what else to do with those kids,” she said. “It became a dropping tank that every kid was being dropped into. Now, we have to provide instruction.”

Now, having a regular classroom atmosphere, McLaughlin said her students work together and help one another – a sight she loves to see.

“What’s the most fun for me – I have a student who struggles with math,” she began. “I have another one who excels in math, but struggles in another area, and when those two connect and they start helping each other, it’s great. They want to work together, and they want to see each other be successful. That’s the fun part, for me. I love it. For once, they’re working with somebody and not just sitting back and falling by the wayside, and not being able to participate because they don’t have confidence or they don’t have the courage.”

Because it is a program for at-risk students, there are bad days that come with the good, but McLaughlin said she and the students go with the flow and try to work through issues together.

“There are days that we don’t get any kind of math, reading, writing, language arts or anything done, but we do a lot of mental health stuff,” she said. “We just talk about our life and where we are and what we’re doing. The struggles we face and what’s to come, because I feel like that’s important, too. We’ve got to clear our heads to be able to move forward.

“It’s fun because every group that I’ve had has fallen into that,” she continued. “This isn’t a judging ground. We’re a little family and that’s how we operate our class. We have our bother/sister fights and we have our disputes and our arguments, but at the end of the day, we’re still in the same program and we still enjoy working together. That’s fun for us.”

The program has had many success stories. In the past three years, McLaughlin said she has had between 12 and 15 students receive their diplomas, nine of whom graduated last year.

The numbers fluctuate from year-to-year, but she said that is common in most situations.

“There are struggles, and they work really hard to overcome those struggles, but motivation is sometimes a difficult thing and we lack a lot of it,” McLaughlin said. “But, we motivate ourselves. I’m not going to say that we don’t have any dropouts because we do, and it’s not because I want that or anybody in this building wants that, but that’s just the reality of it.

“We do have dropouts, and it’s hard to swallow, but at the same time, you have to put in your head, ‘I’m not going to save them all,’ and some of them, that’s just what they want,” she continued. “If that’s what they want and they are stuck in their ways and we’ve done everything, I can’t stop them. We can’t save all of them, but I know that we have definitely made a difference in the lives of some.”

For someone who entered the job without knowing what Option Pathway was, McLaughlin has made some great strides with her class. Her background is agriculture education, which she taught for two years in Kentucky before moving to Pocahontas County.

After taking jobs at Community Care Dental and First Tracts Real Estate, McLaughlin returned to education and was worried about taking on Option Pathway, but is now happy she challenged herself.

“When I came in, I was super overwhelmed just because I felt like it was test here, test there,” she said. “You’ve got to do this test. Then you’ve got to do this test. It was a lot, but then, when I got into it, I fell in love. I fell in love with the kids because every kid has their own challenges and every day is a different day. You never know what you’re going to walk into.

“It could be a day full of excitement,” she continued. “It could be a day full of sadness. It could be an emotional whirlwind. In here, they know we all struggle with something, and they rally together. They become a family. They’re a team and that’s the fun thing. Every year I have to build a new team, so it’s never the same. It’s exciting, and it’s fun to see how they’re going to mesh. Each year, I know it’s not going to be easy, but overall, they respect me, they respect the classroom and they know what their purpose is.

“They have to learn and they have to get through this to be able to get on to bigger and better things.

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