FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Flagstaff kids used to call it “dropout high.” The real name is Ponderosa High School and it’s where at-risk kids are given one last chance to graduate. It's graduating more and more students each year.
Jonathan Bronston would probably make a good linebacker. He’s big and intimidating. He’s got a long rap sheet -- drugs, gangbanging, grand theft auto. That’s the one that landed him in jail. But at 20, this young Navajo man says he’s changed. After seven years in the Crips gang, he quit this year.
"To get out of it, you get a beat down," Bronston said. "Well, like, I’m big. When I got out of it no one wanted to beat me up."
He joined the gang in Phoenix when he was 13, then started one in Tuba City with Navajo kids. But he says he’s done. Now he wants his diploma.
"Nothing good about gangbanging, just beating up people," Bronston said. "There’s nothing right about beating up people because they’re minding their own business. All the people I did that to, I feel sorry for that. Wish I could take it back but I can’t, it happened."
Bronston’s seen his niece and nephew graduate from Ponderosa and said now it’s his turn. He’s determined too. He drives an hour and a half from the reservation to get to school each day.
Rachel Steagall has taught science at Ponderosa since the school opened eight years ago. But like all the staff there, she does a lot more than teach. She picks kids up from jail, testifies for them in court, gets them fed, takes them to a shelter and she helps them deal with major issues.
"‘I’m going to be a mom, I’m going to be a dad, I’m addicted to this, I’m being abused, I’m not safe, I have no where to live.’ Those are conversations we deal with everyday," Steagall said. "We have unsafe kids trying to get to school because it’s the only place that they’re safe and then on top if it trying to learn."
Steagall and the staff at Ponderosa try to catch them when they fall. That’s why the county built Ponderosa -- to provide a safety net for kids that need extra attention and get them to graduate. The school is 60 percent Native American and 20 percent Latino -- two groups with some of the worst graduation rates in the country.
Steagall said the students actually enjoy coming to school because there are other kids like them here.
"We know their story," Steagall said. "And that’s the one thing all these kids have in common is they have a story of why they’re here. Whatever challenges it is they face they all share it and we know it and that’s what makes that difference."
Ponderosa Principal Dave Roth has been an educator for 35 years.
"Sometimes we have trouble getting student to graduate because they like being in school," Roth said. "It’s a good connection for them. It’s positive they have someone who listens to them and they don’t want to leave. We have to sort of help them out the door a little bit."
There are definitely hard days for Roth, Steagall and the rest of the staff. Like on the day I reported this story, one of the students I was supposed to interview was locked up in juvenile detention the day before. But Steagall said she still has hope for him.
"We have hope for every single one, because every kid -- and I firmly believe that -- every kid is going to have that moment where they’re going to turn it around," Steagall said. "It might not be now. I have to believe that moment is going to be there for them."
And each year the school graduates more and more students. Every time a former graduate comes in to share a bit of good news -- a job, a college acceptance letter, a new baby -- Steagall has them speak to the class. She said it makes success more tangible to the students. But she knows it’s ultimately up to them.
"At the end of the day I can’t always be there for them," Steagall said. "And they’re going to have to make that choice and they’re going to have to make that choice unfortunately under a lot of pressure not to make the right choice."
Former gang member Jonathan Bronston has made a choice. He graduates in December. Bronston plans to go on to trade school to be a welder like his father and uncles.