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High Road School student Shannon Dennis, who will graduate from Bloomington High School on Sunday, May 29, 2011, works in her cubicle on Wednesday, May 18, 2011. Dennis' cubicle was decorated in honor of her graduation. High Road is a specialized school that serves 21 students from District 87 and Unit 5. (The Pantagraph/STEVE SMEDLEY)

NORMAL — More than anything, Shannon Dennis wanted to graduate from Bloomington High School, But after getting in trouble and missing many months of class, she’d used up all her chances.

But she refused to leave the school office until someone found a way for her to finish high school. After run-ins with the law for drugs and theft, Shannon wanted a better life for her future child.

She moved to High Road School, 814 Jersey Ave., and now the 19-year-old Shannon will graduate with her BHS class on Sunday. District 87 and Unit 5 have 21 students — challenged by learning, language and social issues — who attend the specialized school for students ages 11 to 21.

It’s one of 47 Specialized Education Services Inc. schools in the U.S. and Canada. The doors at High Road opened here two years ago.

The attention is what makes the school so successful, director JoAnn Ziegler said.

Shannon can attest to that. On days she didn’t show up, she’d get a text or call from the school saying she needed to be in class. She’d reply, “I can’t do this.”

They’d reply, “Get up.”

She did, and eventually earned enough credits to graduate and hopes to study criminal justice at Heartland Community College. “They actually gave me a chance,” she said. “I am going to bring myself up from here.”

Teachers and staff often go beyond school hours to help. Individualized programs can include horseback riding, rock climbing or contact with a university sorority.

Basketball was Jamie Crawford’s outside interest this year. There was no one in his family to watch the 11-year-old play, so someone from High Road attended every game. “I was surprised,” Jamie said with a smile.

For the first six months after he left Pepper Ridge Elementary School, Jamie rarely talked and sometimes sat under his desk for comfort, Ziegler said. Now he does well in school, lifts weights at the YMCA, and enjoys other activities.

This summer, he’ll take part in a football clinic led by two staff members who are Bloomington Extreme players. The clinic is part of a summer school program.

Such programs help students avoid trouble, stay out of trouble and detention, Ziegler said.

High Road opened March 9, 2009, with five students. It allows some students, like Shannon, to experience the emotional journey of walking in a cap and gown at their home school.

“It (High Road) has filled a gap for us, and provides a needed service in the community.” said Unit 5 Superintendent Gary Niehaus. “It is a good complement for our special services.”

Students also get help to transition into the workplace. Some work at the Unit 5 Vocational Training Center in Normal to learn job and life skills in a sheltered environment.

Jobs are hard to find now, but High Road has connected students with a number of outside jobs and pays students, with gift cards, for jobs at the school.

The school also helps students prepare for new adventures. Junior Chardonnay Green will move to Atlanta, Ga., this fall after earning a few more credits at summer school.

She joined High Road reluctantly, and had hated high school in Normal. High Road helped her get back on track.

Now the staff is getting her ready for a school in Georgia, on her way to fulfilling a dream to be a pastry chef.

“I am grateful for the opportunity. I don’t know where I would be without it,” Chardonnay said.


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