Thursday, October 11, 2007

Academies help at-risk students succeed

I'd argue that in most cases the schools lost interest in the students, rather than believing that "these students lost interest in school" -Patricia

Star-Telegram Staff Writer
October 9, 2007

GRAPEVINE -- English teacher Melissa Little stood in the back of her Grapevine High School classroom, monitoring 13 students who were studying independently with laptop computers or huddled in groups of two or three.

She recalled how a teacher affected her life when she was a high school sophomore -- and not for the better.

"He asked me why wasn't I reading fast enough; was I just stupid?" said Little, 32. "I've never in my life felt so worthless. And therefore I struggled academically."

Little believes that all students need someone to believe in their potential.

That's a big part of Grapevine-Colleyville's new high school academies.

The Panther Academy at Colleyville Heritage High and the HOPE Academy at Grapevine High offer extra help to students who lack credits or need tutoring to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Fifth-year seniors -- students who did not have enough credits to graduate last year with their class -- were recruited to attend the academies at the beginning of the year.

"We have a real special opportunity to find out what we can do to make them successful," Little said.

School within a school

Grapevine High's Harnessing Opportunities for Personal Education, or HOPE, Academy meets in a quiet room near the back corner of the school library.

On Thursday morning, six students sat with Little, discussing the components of writing a personal narrative. Three teens gathered at a table, chatting while they took a break. Four others were scattered throughout the room, working on biology, English and government assignments on laptops.

Seventeen students are in the academy at Grapevine, with more joining the class every week, said Lorimer Arendse, associate principal of academics.

Each student has an individual lesson plan. There are four teachers -- one each for English, math, science and social studies -- who rotate between Grapevine and Colleyville Heritage, which has 24 students in the program.

Academy students are kids who were chronically absent, and those who didn't succeed in a traditional classroom. Now, they have one-on-one attention and a flexible schedule. If a student only needs English credit, she can attend for one period, and then leave. Students who need TAKS help will come in for tutoring closer to test time.

"At some point, these students lost interest in school," Arendse said. "Now we want to get them interested again."

Small goals

Eighteen-year-old Jacob Brown of Colleyville admits it freely. He skipped class. He wasn't interested, so he didn't go. Then when he tried to go, he was overwhelmed with how far behind he was.

"In class, it seems like you're not getting anywhere," Brown said.

With only 18 of the 26 credits he needed to graduate, Brown had two options: drop out or keep working.

Most of his classes are freshman- and sophomore-level, but the teachers in the academy break the tasks into small, manageable goals. When Brown reaches a goal, he is rewarded with a snack or the chance to listen to music.

And if he skips, he knows that school officials will "hunt you down," Brown said.

"I never thought about school until now," he said. "And they don't make it seem like it's too hard for us to achieve."

Teachers are the difference between struggling in regular school and succeeding in the academy, said Francisco Guevara, 18, of Colleyville.

Guevara should be a senior, but he lacks the credits. He works full time at Metro Cinema to help support his family. The academy teachers understand his situation, but they don't let him slide on schoolwork.

"Before, if you skipped, they really didn't say anything," Guevara said. "These are probably the first teachers I've ever met that care about us and want us to succeed."

Little said the academy students are her "kind of kids."

"It's a privilege for me to get to know them one-on-one, and to find out where their skills are and recognize where their potential is, and watch them realize that they've had it all along," Little said. "So many teachers just give up on them, and that's heartbreaking for me. It's our job to make sure that they leave here knowing that they're loved, they're cared for, and they're worth something."

Big rewards

Most academy students are upperclassmen, but in the future, some freshmen or sophomores could benefit from the small-school atmosphere.

Students may catch up enough in an academy to rejoin their peers. Others may be able to transfer to Bridges, the district's alternative school.

Student completion rates will be part of the state's accountability system this year, so the district stands to benefit from students sticking it out and graduating.

Ninety-five percent of students must graduate or stay in school for a school to be rated exemplary.

But the greatest benefit is to the students who earn their diplomas, the students said.

"I made too many bad decisions while I was here," said Eduardo Perez, 18, of Grapevine, a fifth-year senior who last year turned himself in for participating in burglary and vandalism at the high school. "I didn't really have a goal."

Then Perez spent the summer doing landscaping work. It was hot, hard and not where he saw himself ending up. He re-evaluated his priorities.

"Working for my uncle in the yards was not fun," he said. "I got poison ivy and sunburn. I don't want that. You just don't give up and quit."

Katherine Cromer Brock, 817-685-3813

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