Darren Williams didn’t think he would graduate from high school. He fell behind during the COVID-19 pandemic. With five brothers and sisters at home, remote learning was not a priority.
“I wouldn’t even log on,” he said. “I’m doing something with my siblings. I’m watching TV playing a game, [going] outside. I’m always doing something, but my schoolwork.”
When in-person classes resumed, he was behind. So he applied for the “Tribe Academy,” an in-school academy within Creekside High School in Fulton County. The Tribe is the school’s mascot.
On Thursday, with help from the academy, Williams walked across the stage at Gateway Arena in College Park to accept his diploma with the rest of his Creekside class. Forty-four students graduated from the Academy. Fulton teachers believe the approach is working.
Reworking ‘alternative’ education
There are five in-school academies in south Fulton where students at risk of not graduating receive one-on-one instruction and other services to help them catch up. In addition to Creekside, there are academies at Banneker, Langston Hughes, Tri-Cities and Westlake high schools.
In 2019, Fulton County Schools decided to repurpose McClarin High, a former alternative school in the southern part of the county. Officials needed to send those students elsewhere. That’s when they developed the idea to serve those students at their zoned high schools in a different classroom setting.
“We don’t believe in … having a dumping ground for students that are behind,” said Fulton Superintendent Mike Looney. “So, we developed a program that the evidence and the research says works. And the good news is we are seeing the fruition of that vision.”
That vision includes students like James Sims and Janiyah Gibson. Like Williams, they were not sure they would graduate. Sims admits he goofed around and didn’t take school seriously until he fell pretty far behind.
“I checked my transcript and I was like, ‘I’m not even in twelfth grade.’”
Sims enrolled in Tribe Academy and was able to catch up and graduate. He said he wanted to please his grandmother, who raised him.
“The only thing she told me was, ‘I want to see you graduate … and make me proud.’ And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Gibson said the personal instruction she received at Tribe Academy made the difference.
“The teachers ... are willing to help you no matter how frustrated you are about it,” Gibson said. She plans to join the U.S. Navy if she passes the required aptitude test. At her graduation Thursday, she beamed with pride.
“I’m more than excited,” she said. “I’ve worked so hard to get here.”
Finding their tribe
Fulton launched the in-school academies during the pandemic. Deputy chief academic officer Gyimah Whitaker said it made sense to offer struggling students more support at their regular school instead of sending them somewhere else. They have smaller classes, after-school tutorials, and counselors who meet with them and monitor their progress.
Tribe Academy has 25 students, 2 teachers and a counselor. Teachers are able to focus on individual students more than they could in a traditional classroom, says Demetrica Gorden who teaches science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
“I’ll sit with students that need some additional help on a class they were struggling with,” she said. “I’ll sit there personally with them and teach them how to go through the steps of solving the problem.”
Sometimes the students need a push, though, says humanities teacher Nechallar Williams.
“After 24 years (of teaching), I can recognize when you’re struggling versus when you’re not even trying,” she said. “So a lot of times I’ll send them back to the computer, (saying), ‘I know you’re not trying because you didn’t read this.’”
Fulton used federal pandemic relief money to get the in-school academies off the ground. That money runs out after the next school year. Officials say whether the district picks up the funding could depend on things like whether enough students are graduating or earning course credit.
School counselor Melanie Smith says the program has been a lifeline for some students.
“I definitely believe that the majority of kids that have come to this program would not be graduating this year (if they hadn’t),” she said. “(They would have) either dropped out, maybe (earned a) GED, but they would not have graduated.”
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Credit: Channel 2 Action News