Norfolk program gives dropouts hope
The Virginian Pilot
Norfolk, VA -- Still a high school sophomore at 18, Shalya Lancaster struggled to stay on track to graduate. She juggled day classes at Lake Taylor High School with two night courses at Granby High last year. She still had five of six required state exams to pass. "It was very stressful," she said.
Lancaster wanted to catch up, but she struggled to find the motivation she had before her mother died eight years ago. She fell behind, in part, because of negative peer pressure. "When I got to ninth grade, I thought it was fun skipping school," she said. "So I kept doing the same thing, the same thing every year."
Her attendance and grades plummeted. Being so far behind at the point when most peers are graduating, she planned to drop out. But a counselor told her about the school division's newest program, the Open Campus for dropouts and students who have fallen behind. Lancaster left Lake Taylor and in September began taking online classes at the new school in the Coronado area, on Widgeon Road. Students study on computers in one main lab along with participating in small-group instructional sessions.
On a fast track, Lancaster could earn her eight remaining credits in a year, or a little longer if she runs into any academic snags. Either way, she's now more likely to get a diploma.
The Open Campus has been touted as a graduation game-changer, giving students a second chance to earn diplomas - not just a General Educational Development equivalency certificate - and helping to boost the division's lagging graduation rates.
The program is part of the Transformation Initiative, a divisionwide improvement plan the School Board adopted last year. The division partnered with the private EdisonLearning and Magic Johnson Bridgescape operate the program, though other components add to the cost. The companies operate similar programs throughout the country, though evaluators didn't compare Norfolk's to those.
State Del. Daun Hester, a former teacher and Norfolk City Council member, serves as the school's executive director. Norfolk provides other staff and resources.
The school opened in October 2014, with spots for 100 dropouts and about 25 students considered older than the typical age for their grade levels. With a rolling enrollment, about 200 participated at some point during the year. About 20 graduated in the spring. School leaders haven't set an annual graduation goal.
The program targets students on the fringes, and they come to school with more than academic problems.
Lancaster needed to work to help support herself and her family. She's moved with relatives three times since her mother died. "Eventually, I was like, I'm just tired. I gotta do something with my life. I can't depend on nobody to do nothing for me," she said. "I'm going to just come back to school and just do whatever I have to do, no matter what."
Now she works full time at McDonald's while attending morning or afternoon sessions at the school. She can check out a computer to work on courses at home when needed. Teachers cheer her on when she gets tired or frustrated. "They help you; they're very supportive," she said.
Lancaster's experiences echo program successes outlined in an evaluation compiled by Old Dominion University researchers. The School Board recently discussed the findings, which showed promising data about helping vulnerable students. But the school also faced difficulties in its first year.
There were fights and other discipline problems, and on-site attendance hovered around 40 percent. The division chose novice teachers to instruct some of its most challenged students. Most teachers of the program's core content - English, math, science and social studies - had less than three years' experience. Although the program provides online courses, the teachers felt the students could benefit from more direct, small-group instruction, according to the report.
Teachers generally spoke favorably about their experiences but said they could benefit from more training and professional support. On any given day, they teach various topics across grade levels. The program could use more teachers, especially to help with reading, the report said.
Many students struggle to read beyond an elementary level, according to the report. The majority of students came in classified as sophomores, while others just needed to pass the Standards of Learning exams required to graduate. The school noted over-age students passed only one SOL exam, and school leaders plan to explore other options for those students.
Open Campus students face significant family and social hardships, including incarceration, homelessness, children and financial difficulties.
A host of support services contribute to students' success, the report said. Teachers facilitate advisory groups, community partners provide job opportunities and parenting and prenatal resources, and the division helps with transportation among other things not usually offered in an alternative education setting.
Some students still struggle to make it to school despite the support. Hester will track down wayward students in their neighborhoods or on their jobs. They still need guidance even though they're young adults, she said. "I see the kids' needs," she said. "They want to be successful. They don't, maybe, necessarily know how."
Hester acknowledged the difficulty in leading a school and serving as a state delegate. She'll be gone when the General Assembly convenes in mid-January through mid-March. She won't get paid while she's away. "The foundation is set before I go, and the expectations they know," she said.
At Open Campus, students take two courses at a time and complete at least 10 online lessons each day. But there is no specific time frame for students to graduate, just that it occurs before they "age out" of public school at 20, depending on their classification. The option of earning a diploma - compared with a GED - motivated students to attend the program, the report said.
Statistical credit when they do graduate goes to their "home" school, the one they were assigned to before attending Open Campus. That's because the state Education Department considers Open Campus a program, not a separate school. That arrangement is not uncommon in Norfolk or the state but has raised questions about accountability because schools get credit for students not enrolled in them.
Along with highlighting successes, the evaluators made several recommendations, including better recruitment and identification efforts, more scheduling options and on-site child care to boost attendance, teacher training and interactive learning. The program also connects students with college and career opportunities once they graduate.
Elizabeth Rice, who needed 10 credits when she enrolled, finished the program and plans to take part in a graduation ceremony later this year. Rice said she doesn't think she could have earned a diploma without Open Campus. "I struggled a lot in high school," she said.
Rice plans to attend Tidewater Community College, where she earned a scholarship. She wants to study nursing and psychology. Of all the things to be happy about, she's most proud to be "finally seeing myself doing something good for my life."
Division leaders have discussed expanding the program while focusing on the problems that contribute to the dropout rate in the first place. It's too early to tell whether the program is the most effective way to achieve academic and graduation goals for vulnerable students, they said.
For now, they're taking it one student at a time.