Gwinnett academies put focus on getting students back on track

The Gwinnett County school system has a new program targeting a specific category of potential high school dropouts: overage eighth graders.

It’s a group that, statistics show, desperately needs a lifeline. 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.”

Students, parents and teachers all have to step up.

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.

“They are anxious and eager learners once they are taught and convinced that (what they are learning) really does have meaning and means a career, a life and a way to take care of their families,” Eaton said. “They become serious students, which is different than model students.”

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.

Parent Tracey Gray said the academy was just what son Omar, who she describes as “very intelligent and inquisitive,” needed last year.

“He really wanted to reach the goal of getting back on track, and the STEP program did that for him,” Gray said. “It was everything they said it would be.”

Omar, typically an honor student, “hit a wall” in 6th grade and had to repeat the year. But in the academy, he thrived in an environment that allowed him to work at his own pace and to ready for 10th grade this year , Gray said.

“That really just blossomed him out,” she said.

Sunny McKaughan, educational services manger for the Star Academy program, said districts need to “provide a dropout prevention solution.”

Research shows that high school dropouts are much more likely than high school graduates to receive public assistance, earn smaller pay checks and be incarcerated or in detention.

She gives kudos to Gwinnett, which she said has not only shown strong support for the program but also is working to help the students through the transition from the STEP academy to high school.

That’s important, McKaughan said, because “transitions tend to be a challenge for this population.”

The academy classrooms were “rebuilt from the ground up” and don’t resemble traditional classrooms, Eaton said. They really can’t with students working in pairs, sharing equipment and technology, and with 10 mini-classes sometimes running simultaneously, she said.

The teachers spent hours learning how to teach in this environment.

“They have to have a real high-quality, deep knowledge of the instruction so they can bounce from high-level concept to high-level concept,” Eaton said.

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.”

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