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Jamaica program helps dropouts finish school

They were both drop outs and now, both are students at St. John's University. And they both credit Project Reconnect, an educational program run by Southern Queens Park Association, for their success."I was in a hole I couldn't get out of," Wilkerson, 19, said recently. "I'd probably still be at home doing nothing."Wilkerson spent his freshman year at Flushing High School and moved on to Jamaica High School for his sophomore year. But he wasn't on solid ground."It was too easy to walk out the door," is how he put it. Wilkerson dropped out and his mother attempted to school him at home.Then Wilkerson's father found out about Project Reconnect, which is housed at Roy Wilkins Park, where SQPA is based. For 10 months Wilkerson got hands-on tutoring as he attempted to obtain his GED. He eventually passed the test and last fall he started at St. John's, where he passed all of his classes. "They stay on top of you there," Wilkerson said of the program. "They work with you, that's why it worked."Like Wilkerson, Marlowe also had trouble finishing high school. His daughter was born in November 2005 and "things got to be too much." He dropped out. A few months later, he tried to reenter high school, but his guidance counselor was somewhat skeptical that he would be able to graduate. She steered him to Project Reconnect."A second chance, that the best way I could describe it," Marlowe said. "Some people don't get it, but I got one."Marlowe and Wilkerson are both Project Reconnect success stories. The problem is that the program has effectively been discontinued due to cuts in federal funding, according to SQPA President William Nelson. Nelson said the program began in 2004 with the funding to follow about 100 students over two years. St. John's agreed to be the academic partner and about 70 students ended up seeing the program through in the first year. SQPA found the students and St. John's created the curriculum. It was a good a match. In addition to the GED courses, students received mentoring and business classes. Most importantly, they were able to study in a supportive environment that allowed them to regain their academic footing."A lot of these kids had literally been rejected by the system," Nelson said.In 2005, the program's funding was cut about 55 percent, so SQPA enrolled about 45 students. But the cuts were deep, Nelson said, leaving a skeletal GED program that had been stripped of the unique mentoring elements. The ability to follow-up with students - to provide a support network that prevents relapses and locks in the academic gains was nearly eliminated, Nelson said."That's the unfortunate piece," Nelson said. "We had shown we could be successful."SQPA was unable to enroll students in 2006, but Nelson continues looking for funding sources and he hopes to enroll at least 25 students this year. St. John's continues to operate an office at SQPA. The money will be completely exhausted on June 30. And the search goes on for more dollars.Reach reporter Craig Giammona by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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