"I didn't think I'd ever be able to finish high school," Francolino said. "I had to get a job. I worked as a waiter and at the A&P to support my son."
Denise Portillo attended North Bergen High School for almost two years, but she was having a host of problems there.
"I just didn't like it," Portillo said. "It wasn't for me. I wasn't a trouble maker, but I just didn't go to school. When the absences piled up and they wanted me to pay a fine of $100 per day for each absence, I couldn't afford to stay."
The same set of circumstances plagued another North Bergen native, Eliana Arango, who spent nearly three years at North Bergen High.
"I was absent a lot, because I had to stay home and take care of my brother," Arango said. "I was also having problems at home. It just got too much and I couldn't handle it anymore, so I left. I thought I would eventually get my GED (equivalency), but I didn't know for sure."
Enter KAS Prep, which stands for Knowledge and Advanced Skills, a subsidiary of the Hudson County Schools of Technology in North Bergen that gives former troubled students throughout the county an alternative to complete high school in a true high school setting.
In the last six years, approximately 200 Hudson County students ages 16 through 19 attend KAS Prep, which is located in the same building as High Tech High School and the Hudson County Adult Education School on Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen.
The students are referred to KAS Prep from their former high schools as students who would have normally gone on to graduate high school, if not for a series of personal circumstances - ranging from teen pregnancy, alcohol and substance abuse, behavioral problems and simple truancy.
"[They were] what other schools would consider bad kids or at-risk students," said KAS Prep's principal, James Doran. "They would probably not function in the traditional high school setup. We've had students who have had a variety of problems. Some had no adult supervision at home, but they were able to come here."
The unique school gives these students who were pegged as future high school dropouts the opportunity for a second chance to finish high school in a very different setting.
The general school day runs from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. - which gives students who had difficulty getting up in the morning the chance to start classes later in the day.
For someone like Francolino, who works as a waiter until 2 a.m. almost every day, he's able to secure some more sleep.
"That's a big help," Francolino said.
More assistance comes from the school's day care program. While the school's teen parents - 18 females and Francolino - attend school, their children are cared for in the school's nursery.
"We have a bus that comes and picks up the student and their baby," Doran said. "The babies go to the nursery and the students go to class. When girls have babies, they tend to find that traditional school days are just too difficult. We did studies to find that these were the most productive hours."
Doran said that the students are given the basic high school core curriculum required by the state.
"Our students have to complete the same amount of hours in order to receive a diploma," Doran said.
Plus, KAS Prep's students also receive an array of career education opportunities in case the student wants to find a job right out of high school, instead of attending college.
"We have all different kinds of kids," Doran said. "Because they're here doesn't mean that they are of low academic achievement. We want to offer them all different kinds of opportunities."
There are some companies, like Verizon, that offer employment as service technicians right after completing KAS Prep's course of study as well as Verizon's in-house training sessions that take place at the school. Other students are given different training, like office training, in order to join the work force.
But a good majority of KAS Prep's students go on to attend college, either on the two-year community college level or the four-year traditional college or university.
"Nearly 85 to 90 percent of our students move on to the next level," Doran said. "Where in the past, students like this would have moved on to another school at a 15-to-20 percent rate. That's a remarkable total. We've been quite successful."
The KAS Prep students come from every municipality in Hudson County. Jersey City students comprise 32 percent of the student body, followed by Union City (14 percent) and North Bergen (12 percent).
The students are also offered a share of elective courses. For example, Portillo had been a dancer, taking a series of lessons, for nine years prior to attending KAS Prep.
"I had taken lessons for so long, but then, when I left school, I had to give up dancing," Portillo said.
However, much to Portillo's surprise, when she enrolled at KAS Prep, she found out that dancing was offered as an elective. And last year, she participated in a scholarship program with the prestigious Alvin Alley Summer Dance troupe. She is now well on her way to reaching her goal to become a professional dancer and will either attend Rutgers University in New Brunswick or the Julliard School of Performing Arts after she graduates.
Much good news
And that's the good news. Most of the students are on target to graduate, like Anas Abulaban of Jersey City, who dropped out of Dickinson High School right before he was to start his junior year.
"The guidance counselors there wanted to send me to a boot camp, because they thought I was a bad kid," Abulaban said. "I had a lot of personal problems and distractions, so I didn't go to school."
Added Abulaban, "But coming here changed my life. It's the only chance I have now. I have to cherish it as though it was my child."
The school also has a dedicated staff of teachers, counselors and social workers.
Hawa DahnSaw helps get the students involved in community-related activities as well, because such involvement can lead to impressive resumes for college applications.
"I think that our program helps our students embrace their strengths and works through their weaknesses," DahnSaw said. "They're able to achieve their goals and leave us as successful adults. They're able to work through their difficulties and their struggles. They also have a very good support system here and they're able to reach beyond their expectations."
Kathy Young was in the Jersey City school system for several years before becoming the social development coordinator and substance awareness coordinator at KAS Prep.
"Our students are given the chance to have the high school experience," Young said. "They have activities, they have a prom. It's more than just getting the GED. They're becoming well rounded young adults and they're having fun. It's like a family here."
The students all realize that they've been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"It was a perfect opportunity for me," said Arango, who plans to attend Bergen County Community College in the fall. "When I signed out of high school, I figured I lost my dream of going to college. I figured it was over."
Arango said that she eventually wants to attend Old Dominion University in Virginia.
"They haven't just helped us with school," Portillo said. "They've helped us with our personal lives. College was not in the plans two years ago. I owe a lot to this school."
Cheryl Lauto is the school's educational advisor, who has been with the program since its infancy, called Project Focus, strictly for teen parents, at St. Peter's College seven years ago.
"We had about 20 students then," Lauto said. "It started off small, but then just continued to grow. When we came here, it just enabled us to take in so many more students. We're also getting quite popular, because this year, I had to deny 45 applications."
Lauto was asked about the finished product.
"It is amazing," Lauto said. "We don't even know how we do it. It's become so natural to work with these kids. It's definitely very rewarding."
Doran knows that without his program, a lot of these 200 students would be in trouble right now.
"They wouldn't have finished high school," Doran said. "They probably would have been on some sort of public assistance. Is it difficult? Sure. It's not easy. But these are kids that are constantly fighting the rules of the street. It's worked so well that we're probably now one of the biggest programs in the state. And we're one of the most ethnically diverse schools. We're sending out our kids into society as productive citizens."