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PAXTON — A year ago, Dylan Renfrow resented authority. He had trouble controlling his anger. Disciplinary and academic problems were mounting, and his hopes of one day graduating from high school were fading.
Today, the 17-year-old rural Paxton resident has a new and improved attitude, with the grades to prove it. And this Friday, Renfrow will walk the stage with the rest of his classmates at Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School — a milestone his mother was not sure he would ever achieve.
“It’s not expected. I’m as happy as a peach,” said Tabitha Renfrow. “It was a struggle, but I’m glad that he’s focused and he did what he had to do.”
Renfrow credits his turnaround to the Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education Safe Schools Program, called the READY Program. The alternative education program, operated out of the Illinois Terminal in Champaign, gave Renfrow the more individualized attention he needed to address his behavioral and academic problems, he said.
“I didn’t really like authority,” said Renfrow, who was placed into the program in April 2011 after he was suspended at PBL for fighting. “But there (at READY), it kind of helped me more, because most of the teachers there were there to be your friend. They didn’t have favorites. I didn’t see one time that teachers picked on just one kid. There was never that. They were always on everybody.”
Renfrow was one of the READY program’s biggest success stories this year. Renfrow recently received the program’s Most Improved Student of the Year Award — an honor bestowed on just one of the program’s 150 students — after he improved his grades from all C’s and D’s to all A’s and one B.
Donna Kaufman, director of the READY program, said Renfrow was deserving. She said he made the READY program’s honor roll each quarter as a senior, while he also improved his attendance and attended counseling sessions to help him work through the social and emotional issues he was experiencing.
“He did a great job,” Kaufman said.
Renfrow’s completion of the READY program has allowed him to graduate with his classmates at PBL.
Once unenthusiastic about school, Renfrow now plans to further his education next fall by attending Parkland College in Champaign, where he plans to pursue certification in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry. His older brother, Austin, also will graduate from high school this week and plans to pursue the same career path.
“Maybe we can get our own business going and get our name out there,” Dylan Renfrow said.
PBL High School Principal Trent Eshleman said he is proud of Renfrow and “the way he took ownership in his life and also in his academic realm.”
“We’re very proud of the commitment he’s made,” Eshleman said. “That is truly a testimony of him owning up, being a good man and understanding that he has to make the best of what he’s been given. And he’s certainly done that. So we’re very proud of him, and we hope that he continues that through the future and he remains to be a man built for others.”
Overcoming his issues
Renfrow admits that he got into trouble at PBL, but not until a year ago did he realize the reasons behind his behavioral issues.
At the time, he and his brother were both attending counseling. And their therapists made it clear that there could be no secrets.
So, their mother made the decision to open up to them about how their father, Jeffrey, died when both boys were very young.
“My dad died when I was 2, and I never really knew why,” Dylan Renfrow said. “Most of (my anger) was from not knowing how he died.”
Renfrow said, at first, “it kind of made me more angry (after I found out the truth), because (I learned that) he ended up committing suicide. So it made me feel like he didn’t want to be with us.”
But Renfrow said he knows that is not the case. And he said the closure that knowing the truth has brought to his life has helped him more than anything.
“Now I finally know, and I can get on with that part of my life, you know, and close that end to the questions I’ve had,” Renfrow said.
“It was hard (telling them the truth),” Tabitha Renfrow said through tears. “It was tough. But they deserved to know. It was time.”
New and improved
Renfrow’s behavior gradually improved after he learned the truth of his father’s passing. Around the same time, he was placed in the READY program.
One of the key reasons Renfrow was successful in the READY program was that the program provided social workers to help him stabilize his behavior, he said.
“They helped me out in a lot of ways with my anger,” Renfrow said. “They had more extra help there. So if I had anger problems, they’d help me through it.”
Smaller classrooms also allowed for more individualized instruction — “so every student gets the help they need in that class hour,” Renfrow said.
It also helped that the teachers did not “put up with kids acting out.”
“After a while, it kind of slowed me down on my attitude,” Renfrow said. “I kind of figured, ‘I need to get through with this and calm down with this (bad-boy) act and get on with my life.’”
Renfrow said he has “changed a lot” due to the READY program. He not only is a high school graduate today, but he also has a part-time job at the Subway restaurant in Paxton and has volunteered to do community service work.
Renfrow plans to continue working at Subway through the summer.
“I’m trying to keep (the job) so I’ll have (experience) to look at when I (apply for) a new job,” he said. “I want to show other (employers) that I actually do stay and work and that they don’t have to worry about me quitting on them or anything like that.”
Ready for graduation
At READY’s graduation ceremony last week, Renfrow gave a speech in front of about 100 people in a banquet hall.
“That was really nerve-racking. I couldn’t stop shaking. I thought I was going to pass out a couple of times,” he said. “I’ve done speeches in front of classrooms, but never in front of a hundred people like that.”
Also last week, Renfrow participated in a rehearsal for his graduation ceremony at PBL, which begins at 7:30 p.m. this Friday. Renfrow had the opportunity to participate in both PBL’s ceremony and READY’s ceremony.
“Most of (my classmates at PBL) thought I wasn’t going to walk (the stage) there (at PBL’s graduation ceremony),” Renfrow said. “Most of them thought I was just graduating at READY. When they saw me come in (Friday) morning (for the rehearsal), they were like, ‘What are you doing here?’”
Renfrow would have asked himself the same question a year ago.
“If I wouldn’t have changed, I probably wouldn’t have made it through high school,” Renfrow said. “That was probably one of my fears is that if I didn’t make a change, I probably wasn’t going to get out of high school — that I was going to be stuck maybe not getting my diploma.”
Eshleman said Renfrow is just one of the many success stories to come out of the READY program. Eshleman estimated that 10 students in grades 6-12 in the PBL school district were enrolled in READY this year.
“The READY staff and administration just do an outstanding job of fulfilling the needs of those students with smaller class sizes and with a little more personal attention, both academic, social and emotional,” Eshleman said. “We’ve got a lot of success stories, beyond just Dylan, with our students who have gone to READY.”
Renfrow recommends the program.
“If they’re struggling in a regular high school, I would say, ‘Yeah, go to READY,’” Renfrow said. “One thing that sticks in my mind is they said, ‘If you can take advantage of our program, it would be the best for you.’ And that’s what I did — I took advantage of what they were supplying me and did the best I could with it and ended up with a diploma.”