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Celebrating the PLC; Students share their triumphs over adversity

Independent Tribune - 5/31/2018

CONCORD- When Paul Mendo was young he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. Because of this, he does not learn well in a large classroom setting.

When he heard about the Performance Learning Center (PLC), Mendo said it sounded too good to be true. But he applied and was one of 125 students that were accepted to attend.

"It helped me so much that I was able to come here, as I probably couldn't have made it through the entirety of a normal school," Mendo said during the PLC's recent legislative luncheon. "I recommend Performance Learning Center for any person out there like me. For any person out there who can't perform their best at a traditional school and for anyone who wants something much more engaging."

The PLC is Cabarrus County Schools' small, non-traditional high school geared toward students who are not succeeding in a traditional school setting. The school was created through a partnership with the district, Communities in Schools of North Carolina and funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

According to the school's website, the PLC incorporates a caring philosophy and approach that combines strong personal relationships between staff and students with an intense focus on academic achievement.

County commissioners, board of education members and other leaders in the community attended the luncheon and heard from graduating seniors like Mendo, all who had glowing things to say about their experience at the school.

"I loved taking my classes in rooms where there were no more than 10-to-15 people. I loved the teachers who wanted nothing more than for me to succeed," Mendo said. "I never had been to a place where I was so motivated to complete every single task I was given. It's very balanced and works for anyone who learns at different speeds."

The importance of alternative learning

PLC Principal James Williams told the visitors that the school receives students from all high schools in the district. Students apply for their own personal reasons and the course curriculum is delivered online with teachers facilitating the classes. Once students complete the course work, they can be tested and start a new class. This process allows many to catch up on lost credits and graduate on time.

Williams said the county is very fortunate that its leaders recognize the importance of alternative learning environments and support them with necessary resources.

"In other counties schools that started along our model, they don't exist anymore or have morphed into a model that is not effective," Williams said. "With the type of support we get, you don't find that anywhere else in the state from what we are getting. I just want to make sure that everybody who's here today knows this is a county that we can be proud of."

Cabarrus County Schools Vice Chair Carolyn Carpenter also spoke to the audience, congratulating the seniors and talking about how she was on the board when the system decided to create the PLC.

She said that when she hears students and staff talking about the school, their descriptions always include words like "achievement," "diversity," "accomplishment," "family" and "success."

"And each of you will succeed I'm sure. You seniors, you are ending the first chapter of your life. You are going to be entering the world and I know that you're going to make a wonderful difference," Carpenter said. "And I want you to remember another thing, whether you're going out in the world to work or you're going to college, that you can be anything you want to be. And that's so true."

Cabarrus County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Lowder also added that what the PLC does is recognize that all students don't fit into a box. He said while lots of kids do well at a traditional high school, some don't, which is why the county made the commitment to create the PLC.

But Lowder said he always makes sure to point out that the existence of the school is a big commitment from county commissioners who provided the funding for teachers and resources.

"Because it is a small school it is more expensive to run than a regular school because of the capacity. What the state would give us to run this school would be a principal and three teachers. It's very important to know and understand that the state allotment for funding schools doesn't cover schools like the PLC. The funding for positions like clerical and social workers, all of that is funded locally by county commissioners," he said. "We want to be Cabarrus County, a place that recognizes that this place is very valuable and has a lot of stories that are very important and are going to be important in the future in the community. So again we want to say thank you to all the people here that support it financially and just in concept."

More stories of success

Senior Cindy Aguilar said she had the pleasure of transferring to the PLC in the second semester of her freshman year of high school. She wasn't doing well at Central Cabarrus, and was struggling in class after moving to North Carolina from California.

She decided to apply for the PLC because she knew it would help her get enough credits to graduate.

"My first weeks at the PLC was great. Everybody was nice and very helpful," she said. "I liked how I was able to work at my own pace and one-on-one with my teachers. I found that to be very helpful. The classroom setting was quiet and had less distractions."

In October 2016, Aguilar found out she was pregnant. Her baby was born in June 2017 and she began juggling class work and being a new mom.

With tears in her eyes, she told the audience that the mom support group through the school supported her at every turn.

"I had the opportunity to talk about everything that scared me to death. I got to the point recently when I couldn't come to school because I didn't have a babysitter and the PLC supported me, allowing me to work from home and just come and take quizzes, tests and exams at school," she said. "I want to thank all of the teachers and staff for helping me get to where I am today. I wouldn't have been able to do this if it wasn't for the help, love and support you gave me."

Dale Casterlin, another member of the Class of 2018, also found the PLC after becoming a father. He said things were extremely difficult for him with the addition of his son in January 2017 followed by a daughter the next year. Between his children and his full-time job, school seemed impossible.

He was behind and on track not to graduate when he heard about the PLC. His guidance told him attending this new school would be the best opportunity for him to receive a diploma.

"I was nervous at first; new place, new people. But I was determined to show up ready to get started and graduate," he said. "My first impression of the PLC was excellent as the teachers were caring and willing to help me to get ahead of my class."

Casterlin said the classrooms weren't overcrowded, the teachers communicated with him on a one-on-one basis and he learned valuable time management skills.

He said the staff were compassionate and willing to help him with any obstacles that came his way.

"They would continually check on me to see if me or my family needed anything and assist when necessary," he said. "But the best part about the PLC is that it's more than a school, it's a family. We stick together to help each other out and I'm proud to be standing here today. I can honestly say it's always a great day at the PLC for me and all the students."

The final two speakers were senior Michael Molina-Waibel and his mother, Susi Bell Waibel. Molina-Waibel transferred from Central Cabarrus to the PLC during his sophomore year when his mother decided it was the right path for him.

Molina-Waibel had been skipping school and was suspended, which he said was one too many suspensions for his mother.

"She told me that the PLC was an online school and I could work at my own pace and if I stayed on pace I could work from home on Friday, which was even more exciting to me. My first week at PLC I was nervous and confused because it was a new school and different way of learning," he said. "The teachers and staff were always asking me if I needed help which was very comforting for me. After the first week, I fell in love with the PLC and got the hang of things."

During his time at the school, Molina-Waibel caught up on credits, met the requirements for graduation and became a certified scuba diver through a scholarship with Concord-based SEAkers Aquatic Adventures, something he said he would always remember.

Beaming with pride, Waibel said she is proud of what her son has accomplished and thankful Cabarrus County offers the alternative learning environment. She arrived to New York City when she was 14 and didn't speak any English. But she decided that she was going to give her future family the best life possible.

After she said the schools in the city failed one of her children, she did some research and moved to Cabarrus County because of its school options.

"I don't have any family here I just came with my kids, and I've been fortunate enough to have a daughter that graduated from early college," she said. "And I'm so happy. I cannot believe he (Molina-Waibel) is graduating."

Speaking on behalf of the other parents in the room, she said the PLC was a wonderful opportunity for all of their students. Then looking at the seniors, she echoed Carpenter and said she knows they have big futures ahead of them.

"This wonderful school has given you guys the opportunity to do and continue doing what you guys can be," she said. "I'm so pleased to live here in North Carolina. I think my life would have been so much different if I would have stayed there (New York City)."


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