When a student joins PAWS, Mark Garascia’s alternative education program, Garascia does not let go until graduation day—whatever it takes to get there. It’s been more than five years since Garascia came to Hancock Place High School in St. Louis, Missouri, to create PAWS (Providing Alternative Ways to Succeed), aimed at helping students with academic and disciplinary challenges recover credits so they can graduate. Rather than being assigned to PAWS, students apply and go through an interview process, giving them an opportunity to reflect on why they need the program, and involving parents and guardians as partners in their success. Calm and steady, Garascia focuses on each student’s needs, using pacing guides, reward systems, and friendly competitions to make learning fun and help students meet their goals. All students come into PAWS with a clean slate, regardless of what brought them there. Weekly and monthly goal-setting and regular progress reports provide encouragement and positive reinforcement. Garascia involves families at every step, communicating students’ accomplishments by text, email, Zoom, and in-person meetings. The program has a 95% attendance rate, and every single PAWS student graduates, thanks to Garascia’s personal attention.
Garascia’s strategies at PAWS are helping change the perception and direction of alternative education. He presented at the Missouri Alternative Education Network conference on removing the stigma of alternative education by concentrating on individual needs and stories. Garascia sits on the Missouri Commissioner of Education’s roundtable to strategize the future of education in the state, as well as serves on district committees for professional development, facilities, and safety. He hosts countless visitors in his classroom, mentors new teachers, and — during the pandemic — helped his colleagues adapt to online learning.
Garascia’s commitment to every PAWS student is relentless. If students are absent without communicating, he calls, texts, looks at their social media, and eventually involves their parents and visits their homes. When an English language learner joined PAWS and couldn’t communicate with anyone, Garascia used a translation app to connect and also engaged the rest of the class in a mission to help the new student adjust. PAWS students often work or have family obligations during the day, with their most productive time for schoolwork often extending into the wee hours. Garascia adjusted his sleep schedule to be available for them late at night, even working with them on holidays —whatever it takes to get students across the finish line.
Garascia earned a bachelor’s in social science education in 2007 from St. Louis University, a master’s in social science in 2009 from Webster University, and a master’s in reading and literacy in 2012 from Benedictine University.
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