Photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead High School will begin a night school program next month to allow students who have dropped out to complete their degree on an evening schedule.

According to school administrators, the program will run from 4-8 p.m. three days a week and allow high school-age students to fulfill their course requirements to obtain a New York State regents diploma. The high school administration is holding an informational session for the program on Feb. 6 from 6:30-7:30 p.m..

The program is only available to former students and residents of the school district between the ages of 17 and 21. The night school is different from a GED (general education diploma) program, which allows people of all ages who have not graduated from high school to obtain a diploma. 

“Hopefully it’s going to fit a need that we haven’t been able to address in the past,” high school Principal Sean O’Hara said. 

The night school program is the most recent initiative being implemented on the high school level to increase graduation rates and service its large number of dropouts. Riverhead High School’s four-year graduation rate was 82% in 2021, a few percentage points below the state average, according to New York State Education Department data. The high school’s dropout rate, however, was 12%, three times more than the 4% state-wide dropout rate.

Director of Guidance Charles Gassar said students have expressed interest in a night school program throughout his years in the school district — and that there are students that would be interested in program now. 

“We’ve got kids that have a lot of difficult situations, a lot of high needs,” Gassar said. He said some students can’t attend high school during the regular 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. hours because they need to work, take care of family members or have other hardships.

He said that with some students “the regular school day is just not conducive to their learning style. And so we’re trying to think out of the box and put something together that we haven’t had in the past.”

Gassar said the biggest reason that students dropout of high school is because of attendance. “I’m hoping that with these unique bell schedules and programming, that we’re going to be able to get them back and be successful,” he said.

The high school has had credit recovery programs and other opportunities to allow students who are struggling to recover in the past, but never a “complete holistic program,” Gassar said. 

In the instance a student needs only a few credits to finish their degree, the night school can be reformatted to allow for them to only take the courses they require, Gassar said. 

Anyone interested in registering for the program is encouraged to attend the informational session on Feb. 6. More details on the informational session can be found in English and Spanish on the fliers below.

Guidance counselors and administrators will be available to present a mock schedule and to discuss the needs of prospective students during the informational session. O’Hara said around 11 faculty and staff members will work the night school program, including two guidance counselors.

“We have a cadre of students that have already expressed interest and we’re going to be doing a strong outreach effort to get the word out to the community,” Gassar said.

Right now, the administration is considering a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday schedule for night school, although the schedule could always be changed to fit the needs of students interested in the program, Gassar said. Social Studies and English will be taught for two hours each on one day, Math and Science taught for two hours each on another day, and another day for other required courses like Physical Education and Health. 

English New Language services and classes will also be offered for students who require them. The high school’s dropout rate for English language learners was 40% in 2021, and only 49% of ELL students registered graduated in four years.

Gassar said the program might be a fit for ENL students who have recently immigrated and have to work to support their families during the day. 

“No one is to be turned away,” he said.

Gassar said he hopes the program will not just allow students to complete their degrees, but also give them the option to transition back into a regular school day.

“Some students are going to see this as a pathway to graduate, other students may come here, start this year and then maybe their circumstances will change and it’ll be something that’ll get them back into the building,” he said.

O’Hara said the program is meant to be “scalable,” with admissions available on a rolling basis. 

“Everyone’s going to be kind of an as needed, individualized program that we’re going to look at and see exactly what they need, and then how it can fit. And it may not be for some students, but I think it might be an opportunity for most,” Gassar said.

The high school also implemented an alternative school program this year — the North Star Academy — which operates within the school day with the goal of bringing students falling behind on credits back on track to graduate. That program is at capacity and has a waitlist, administrators said. Both the night school program and alternative high school contribute to the goal of increasing the graduation rate and reducing the dropout rate, O’Hara said.

“The whole idea is we want to give the students an opportunity just to succeed, and the traditional way may just not be enough,” Assistant Principal Kellyann Parlato said. “Maybe thinking outside the box is the best option.” Student-17-and-Older-High-School-Diploma-Flyer-Approval

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com