The AJC’s Nancy Badertscher has a good story today about Gwinnett’s STEP program targeting overage eighth graders, who face a very high risk of dropping out of high school.
These students who have fallen behind their peers are put in an accelerated yearlong program with specially trained teachers. Through concerted effort and time, they can get back on track for graduation.
Based on a national model, the program combines classroom and online classes. STEP sound promising and has had strong initial results for Gwinnett students.
Here is an excerpt of Nancy’s story: (Please read the full story before commenting.)
While the district has a 67.6 percent overall high graduation rate, only about 13 percent of its students who enter ninth grade a year or more behind are leaving high school with a diploma. The goal of Gwinnett’s new STEP academies is to get those students back on track to on-time graduation through a compressed, one-year schedule of online and traditional classes.
The students push through the eighth grade curriculum in semester 1 and can be ready to move on to 10th grade after completing their ninth grade studies in semester 2. All this takes place in a super high-tech classroom with innovative computer software, interactive and hands-on projects and a focus on the real-life relevance of learning.
“It is not for students who are unmotivated,” said Gale Hey, Gwinnett’s associate superintendent for teaching and learning. “It takes commitment.”
These schools-within-schools are patterned after the nationally lauded Star Academies, the first of which opened in South Carolina in 2005. Thirty-five now exist around the country, including two, each with capacity for 80 students, at Gwinnett’s Sweetwater and Moore middle schools.
“We took what they gave us and put it on steroids,” said Georgann Eaton, principal at Sweetwater Middle School. “We had a higher level of expectations.”
For their part, students have to commit to a rigorous class schedule and strict rules on attendance. Parents have to attend five hours of training on what they’re expected to do to help their students succeed. The teacher-student relationship also is considered a critical component, and there’s an expectation that teachers will be available to help their students before school, after school and, if necessary, on Saturdays.
“If you listen to the parents and students, it’s truly a game-changer,” Eaton said.
Students fall behind for a variety of reasons as officials running Gwinnett’s academies have found. Some came from other countries and weren’t on grade level; some were held back after kindergarten; some failed a grade in elementary school; and at least one got behind due to prolonged illness. “A lot of students’ disengagement is really a learned behavior,” Eaton said. “They’re generally students who really can achieve but who have not been able to find that real-life connection they need.”
Science, technology, engineering and math are emphasized at the academies, as are benefits of knowledge in those valued fields, such as putting students on the path to dual college enrollment, better paying jobs and interesting careers, Hey said.
The program has been a good fit for many, though not all. Last year, 74 middle school students in Gwinnett attended the program. Of those, 58 were ready for 10th grade at year’s end. Nine were ready for ninth grade, and 12 dropped out.
This year, 154 middle school students are enrolled in the two academies. To date, 19 have dropped out, according to data compiled by Hey’s office.
Durrant Williams, assistant principal at Berkmar High School, said he believes “the development of such a creative program will ultimately change the face of public education in Gwinnett County Public Schools.” The program, Williams said, is demonstrating that the focus of the school system and its leaders “is to ensure that all students receive a world-class education, regardless of their previous struggles.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog