Keeping Students Upward Bound

Keeping Students Upward Bound

Students at William Allen High School in Allentown have two fierce women behind them offering encouragement, support, and tough love. Rina Duggan and Eileen Snover are the kind of educators whose efforts may escape headlines, but they’re the ones who change lives by implementing confidence, compassion, and grace. Rina and Eileen are deeply committed to seeing the nearly 3,000 teenagers at Allen flourish, paying close attention to the large percent who face language barriers and difficult home lives.

Rina runs the school’s College and Career Center (CCC), a place students go to figure out their post-high school plans. Whether that involves higher education, a job, or enlisting in the military, she’s prepared to offer guidance. “We want to open their eyes—let them know information, what careers are available, and what I can do to help as they get older,” Rina says. “I listen to them talk through their dreams and help figure out their next steps.”

Visiting the CCC is not mandatory, so sometimes that means Rina must go on the prowl. With a mission to connect with as many students as possible, she keeps track of who hasn’t utilized her services. To those students trying to avoid Rina’s meeting requests, take heed: she’s unwilling to accept “no” for an answer. “I’m not giving up and  I’m not leaving you alone,” she says with a laugh, though it’s obvious she
means it.

Rina describes a former Allen student who always kept to himself, didn’t say much, and would never visit her classroom. With piqued curiosity, she approached him. After several conversations, he began to open up. Rina discovered he was homeless, yet earned grades reflecting brilliance. 

“At this point, he didn’t have a place to lay his head; scholarships were the last thing on his mind,” Rina says. “I was able to reach out and help him get the support he needed to handle his situation to focus on his future.”

With Rina’s help, he applied to colleges and earned a full scholarship to a prestigious technical university. Another former Allen student, Lindsay Bennis, also found a four-year scholarship after seeking collegiate financial aid with Rina.

“If I could tell Mrs. Duggan anything, I’d tell her thank you for everything you’ve helped me with. All your encouragement and daily laughs really brought me joy,” says Lindsay. “I would tell her to never stop doing what she does, because she is incredible at it and helps so many Allen students every single day.”

Principal Luke Shafnisky is a fan of the success and positivity his CCC leader produces. “Rina works tirelessly with students, coordinating college meetings, helping them create portfolios, working with them on college applications, and financial aid forms,” he explains. “She prides herself on the success of each student. I know many of our graduates would not have ended up on the academic and career paths without her guidance.”

Allen is home to a large population of non-English-speaking students. Before they meet with Rina to begin planning a future after graduation, their priority is to build language and literacy skills. This is where Eileen Snover comes in.

As one of Allen’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers, Eileen works with freshmen and sophomores with limited or no English proficiency. Before arriving in this country, many of her students either couldn’t attend school, or their education was interrupted due to circumstances beyond their control. Some of the teenagers come from rural farming communities without access to technology—in addition to learning our language, they must also navigate computers for the first time.

“These kids are still learning letters and the sounds they make. That’s the reality,” Eileen explains. “Then they go to math, history, and science, trying to make sense of all this language. It really takes a lot of hard work and determination. I believe to the very fiber of my being we have not just a legal obligation, but a moral obligation, to give these kids the tools to succeed.”

ESOL students are not immune to the frustrations we all face while learning. Eileen has seen kids give up and stop attending school. She recognizes warning signs and does her best to catch them before dropping out, speaking with them about why their parents wanted to come to the United States. When the students answer, “work; better opportunity; better education,” she reminds them the only way to reach any of those goals is to break through the language barrier.

“I push them hard because I believe in them—in their potential, skills, and abilities,” says Eileen. “I believe in them even when they don’t believe in themselves. Hopefully it’s enough to carry them through another day.”

Eileen implements a golden rule in her classroom: respect. Many of her students come from Spanish-speaking countries and giggle when their teacher practices the language. Making fun of each other, however, is off limits. “I make mistakes in Spanish all the time,” says Eileen. “I don’t care if you laugh at me, but we don’t laugh at each other when someone is trying to say something new in English. The only way we learn is by making mistakes.”

Principal Luke recognizes Eileen’s commitment to navigating her ESOL students through obstacles to fulfill their career and college aspirations. He says she spends countless hours making certain her students stay on track and plan for their future.

“I’m way more than an educator,” says Eileen. “They come to me with questions or problems with their life, family, boyfriend, or girlfriend. They know I’ll tell them the truth even if it might hurt a little and they know it’s because I care.”

Eileen has spent the last four years of her decade-long teaching journey at Allen. The ESOL seniors graduating in June are the same students she began this leg of her career with and it’s going to be tough to say goodbye. With emotion in her voice she prophesied what she’ll tell them as graduation approaches: “‘I love you, but go. It’s not really goodbye.’ I’m proud for them. I’ll tell them, ‘I’m seeing you walk across the stage to get that diploma, so don’t you let me down.’”

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