Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

HELPING STUDENTS GET BACK ON TRACK; Schools for the Future Pushes Those Behind in Grade Level to Catch Up and Earn Diploma

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

HELPING STUDENTS GET BACK ON TRACK; Schools for the Future Pushes Those Behind in Grade Level to Catch Up and Earn Diploma

Article excerpt

Byline: Topher Sanders

Students in Lillie Graham's intensive reading class had a passionate conversation Monday about the lead character of the book "Thick."

The students, who are 13 or 14 and behind grade level, enthusiastically raised their hands to speak or sometimes jumped right into the discussion to express a point.

The apprehension created by lacking confidence or the embarrassment that can come from being older than their classmates is eliminated in Graham's classroom because they all face the same challenge.

The students attend Duval County Public Schools' new Schools for the Future alternative program, a partnership with The Bridge of Northeast Florida and several other nonprofit groups.

The school has 93 students in the eighth and ninth grades that are all two or more years behind grade level. The pilot program aims to help the students catch up in four to five years to earn their diploma and be ready for college or the workforce.

The program cost about $1.7 million, with more than $770,000 coming from private donations. Most of the district's cost is in personnel, which Principal Michelle Joseph notes is funding that follows the students no matter where they are.

Schools for the Future replaces the unsuccessful Renaissance Academy, which wasn't getting the results the district wanted and was down to about 40 students. Students who did manage to make gains in the Renaissance Academy would lose those gains once they moved up to high school and back into traditional classrooms.

Of the district's nearly 18,000 over-age students, about 15,000 are in middle or high school. Duval's intervention efforts at the secondary level prioritize about 3,800 students who are two or more years behind.

The pilot program features small classes, longer school days, frequent counseling for students and access to the latest technology. The program is partly based on the Diploma Plus alternative high school model that operates in eight states. The program will be measured on whether it can help students catch up, stay caught up and graduate with a diploma.

Carolyn Speed pulled her son Marcus Glover out of a private school for the opportunity to attend the alternative program.

"This school provides wonderful opportunity for the students," Speed said. "The only way that you fail in this school is if you don't show up."

Marcus was falling behind in his former school, Speed said, but in Schools for the Future he's being challenged, is assigned more homework and has an opportunity to be a leader. He was one of a couple of dozen students to receive a perfect progress report at the school.

Back in Graham's class, the students' reading level is somewhere between the fourth and sixth grade.

Graham reads aloud and lets her students discuss and write about what they've heard. …

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