Dropout-prevention program focuses on motivation

Posted: Wednesday, September 24, 2003

ATLANTA High school junior Maureen Havener had planned to be doing something else in a few months anything other than attending school but now she's aiming at graduation.

"I was at the point at Clarke Central (High School in Athens) where I was going to drop out after my junior year," she said.

But just six weeks at an alternative school, Classic City High School, has changed her attitude. One reason is because the individualized instruction she gets via computer allowed her to complete a semester's worth of math in a month.

"I like that I don't have to wait on other people," she said.

There's a math problem plaguing educators across the state, and her school could be part of the solution.

The problem is one of subtraction. If you take 125,000 high school freshmen every fall, you'll have to subtract 50,000 three years later because they've dropped out of school without graduating.

Neil Shorthouse, president of Com-munities In Schools, says his organization's alternative schools are cracking the dropout problem through individualized instruction and motivation. His organization plans to have a school like Maureen's in every county of the state within 10 years.

"We are on a kind of salvation agenda here," he said.

While Maureen benefits from the computers and courseware donated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, classmate Shawn Nash appreciates the motivation he gets from small classes and personal attention from teachers and administrators.

"Day by day gets me closer to my goal," he said.

In a traditional school, he said he was too shy to ask his teachers questions in front of his friends. But with only 14 other students and a teacher who regularly expresses interest in his feelings, he's overcome his hesitation.

For more than 30 years, Communities In Schools has run dropout-prevention programs in Georgia and 34 other states, now reaching 2 million students in 2,500 schools.

Fifty-two Georgia counties operate some type of program.

But two years ago, leaders of the Atlanta-based organization decided to take the best of those unique local programs and create a model school. Classic City High School and ones in Bulloch, Coweta, Richmond, Dougherty and Lowndes counties are the first using the model approach.

In the model schools, 65 to 150 students sit at computers in what looks like a typical office setting for roughly half their day. The other half is spent with mentors, counselors or working on projects like volunteering to build houses for the Habitat for Humanity program as ways to motivate students at risk of dropping out of school.

"The CIS philosophy of building strong local partnerships with school administrators, teachers, parents, businesses, regulatory agencies, and faith communities consistently yields higher graduation rates, better attendance and improved academic achievement," said State School Superintendent Kathy Cox.

Local school systems provide a building and pay the teachers, but CIS picks them and trains them. It also furnishes the building and hires a coordinator to match students with mentors in the occupations they aspire to. And in the model schools, called Performance Learning Centers, CIS essentially controls the total operation.

In the first year of running the model schools, CIS notes that 80.2 percent of the students raised their grade averages and 87.9 percent who had a history of school suspensions for misbehavior completed the year without another suspension.

Eighth-grader Thomas Edmonson of Avondale Middle School in Avondale credits CIS.

"It helped my discipline improve and my goal achievement, and it helped me set higher goals," he said. "I don't get in no more trouble, and I influence other people."

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