Katelynn Juco, background, works with Passages teacher Julia Johnston on Monday afternoon while her son, Diego, cuddles with her after just waking up from a nap in their Lewiston home. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — At 24, Katelynn Juco is determined to graduate from high school.

She’s worked at a childcare center for more than four years, completing numerous online trainings. She has 15 letters of recommendation from families familiar with her quality of care.

But her career is at a standstill. To advance beyond teaching prekindergarten, she’ll need a high school diploma.

Juco is a Passages student at Wayfinders Schools, a home-based education program designed to create an alternative path to graduation for young parents.

The state-accredited program is structured around 24 core skills, which include general education topics like math, science and history, but also practical skills not generally taught in schools, such as budgeting, employability, and understanding abuse.

Students with children also cover topics related to parenting.


“It’s realistic education for young adults and teens that they will actually use,” Juco said.

Sitting in her Lewiston home several weeks ago, cartoons playing quietly on the television, Juco and Passages teacher Julia Johnston went over the requirements she’ll need to meet to walk at graduation in June.

It won’t be easy. Juco and her husband only recently finished moving into their newly purchased home, a process which virtually put her schooling on hold. Even now, with two young children to care for and a full-time job, it’s difficult to find quiet time to complete her schoolwork.

At 9 p.m. every night, Juco’s alarm reminds her, “I want to graduate.” But she acknowledged finding the motivation to complete her remaining core skills has been hard.

“Be tough, drill sergeant Julia,” she quipped.

Whether she walks this June or next, Juco will soon prove to herself and others that dropping out of school was a detour from her education, not the end.



Every Wayfinder student has a unique story.

They’re survivors of sexual assault, domestic abuse and other traumas; former foster care children who grew up in poor, unstable homes; parents themselves, now responsible for supporting their own children.

And before long, they’ll be high school graduates.

Shared among Wayfinder students was the inability to thrive in a traditional high school setting.

One in 10 Maine students fails to graduate from high school after six years, according to Department of Education data.

“Many (students) who come to us have significant gaps in their education,” Head of Schools Martha Kempe said. “It could be something challenging in the home environment, it could be they’ve moved a lot, it could be illness, it could be a variety of things.


“They are feeling a sense of hopelessness because everyone else is moving on, but they only have three or four credits.”

Across the state, more than five dozen students age 14 and older, from York to Washington County, are in Wayfinder Schools’ Passages program. Each of these students applied to be in the program, seeking a second chance to earn their high school diploma.

It’s one of several alternative education programs active in Androscoggin County. But unlike most, Wayfinder teachers meet students in their homes, scheduling one-on-one sessions around student’s busy lives and guiding them toward graduation.

The school determines each student’s education level through baseline testing and builds from there.

“They can make leaps and bounds with that one-on-one support, whereas before, if they were back into traditional high school, they might be put in another class and still feel like I’m still at the fourth grade level in terms of math versus my peers,” Kempe said. “It helps them to really build on what they know in a way that makes sense for them.”

Julia Johnston, left, a teacher in the Wayfinder Schools’ Passages program, works Monday afternoon with student Brianna Robinson on a homework project at Robinson’s kitchen table in Auburn. In the background, Robinson’s son, Cylas, is being put in a stroller for a walk to the store with Robinson’s sister. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal


Wayfinder students speak highly of the flexible program tailored to their individual education and social needs. They study the core skills in the order of their choice, learning at their own pace.


Through workshops, students visit local colleges, learn to cook nutritious foods, volunteer in their communities, and connect with other Wayfinder students.

Once accepted into the program, teachers work with students for as long as it takes to earn their diploma. Some graduate in as little as a year, while others may take as many as five, partly depending on the number of credits they transfer.

“There is so much potential in these students that could be wasted if they don’t get the support they need,” Johnston said. “They have so much to offer, but they just need a little direction and encouragement.”

Describing her role as part educator, part social worker, Johnston’s duties often go beyond those of a normal classroom teacher.

“(Wayfinder Schools) gives teachers an incredible amount of flexibility where, if we go to a student’s house and something is necessary, we hop in the car and we go take care of it,” Johnston said. “Or, we get them connected with somebody else that can help them take care of it.”

At time, she connects her students with basic necessities, like food, health care, and housing. But she’s also helped students file protection from abuse orders.


“It’s absolutely unlike any other teaching job,” Johnston said. “You’re working one-on-one with (students). Their kids are around if they’re parenting, their families are around, so you get to know each other in a very different way than you would, than I ever did, with a more regular school.”


As a child, Brianna Robinson was responsible for caring for her younger siblings. Sometimes, she would leave school in the middle of the day to pick up food and donations for her family.

As her home life became more difficult, she found herself slipping further and further away from school, eventually dropping out in her sophomore year.

“I grew jealousy for people who could just go to school and learn things, and I’m sneaking out of class to go and do these things that my mother should have been doing,” Robinson said. “I had this resentment toward education for the longest time.”

Lewiston High School isn’t a bad place, Robinson said, but she found herself feeling alienated when she needed help the most.

“They thought that I had behavioral issues, when really I was just lost and I needed guidance,” she said. “They weren’t willing to provide that for me, which is why I think Wayfinders is so cool.”


“It’s mind blowing what this program has done for me emotionally,” Robinson said. “Not just like learning things, but learning about myself, because we are not the same people that we were when we started this program, not by any stretch of the imagination.”

Juco, her close friend, was the one who introduced her to Wayfinders Schools.

“I think it helped a lot that we had each other in the program,” Juco said. “We really motivated each other to get stuff done.”

As a student at Poland Regional High School, Junco lacked individualized support at home and in school, struggling to manage both her mental health and classwork.

“I was missing a very big key nurturing piece with my parents that made achieving my education and focusing (difficult),” she said. “It got to a point where home sucked so much, that my school was my social zone. Like, my oasis. I didn’t want to do schoolwork, I just wanted to goof off with my friends.”

After becoming pregnant at 17, Juco dropped out of high school in her senior year. Now, her children are motivating her to earn her diploma.


“I really want to raise a very strong, intelligent, beautiful woman who can tackle anything, and I want her to know that you can go far with your education, or not,” Juco said, joking that boys will always be crazy. “But it’s always nice to have it under your belt no matter what you decide to do.”


While the path to graduation may be particularly long and difficult for Wayfinder students, the challenges make the final conferring of diplomas all the more sweet.

“There’s nothing like our graduation,” Johnston said. “Everybody’s crying, it’s so great. The barriers make it really difficult, and they also make it just so moving when they get past it all and get to graduation.”

With her diploma nearly in hand, Robinson plans to enroll at Central Maine Community College this fall to study forensics. She’s passionate about science, especially neuroscience.

The chemical structures of serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine are fittingly tattooed on her right arm.

“I could go into forensics,” she recalled thinking, “I could study psychology at the same time and really find out how people tick and why they do things.”


While Juco loves children, she doesn’t see herself staying in childcare for the rest of her career. Encouraged by Robinson, she aims to become a doula, providing physical and emotional support to women before, during and after childbirth.

“I love it,” she said. “I think pregnancy is beautiful. I think prenatal care is beautiful. (But) I think there’s a lot of things missing.”

“For her to go and try to make that a profession, I think she would be very good at it,” Robinson said. “She looks at the whole picture of a person and not just what they need medically.”

Wayfinders Schools will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. On April 14, the school will launch its second live storytelling event, “Finding our Way,” at the Camden Opera House where notable Mainers and Wayfinder alumni will share heartfelt, funny, and poignant stories live from the stage.


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