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Endeavor Academy's sweeping changes show signs of success

BROOKSVILLE — Matt Plotner gave his mouse one more click and called to his teacher.

"Check this out," said Plotner, 17, as he motioned to the monitor. He had just aced an American history quiz on the growth of cities in the early 1900s.

"That's what taking good notes will do for you," teacher Daniel Rushton said, looking over Plotner's shoulder. "Good for you."

This is the Endeavor Academy formula at work. Students sit in front of a computer clicking at their own pace through lessons and, when they're ready, take quizzes and exams. Teachers float around the room to keep their charges on task, help when they get stumped, and heap praise when they do well.

Formerly the STAR Center, the school, just north of Brooksville Elementary, still serves middle and high school students with discipline problems. Students land there for a string of minor offenses or for just one serious offense, such as battery or weapons possession. They typically spend 90 days there, the last stop before expulsion.

Along with the new name, Endeavor has a new administrator, a new staff and the new instructional method centered on computer-assisted learning.

The transition didn't come without pain. To meet the requirements of a $1 million federal grant that would have been used primarily for incentive pay to lure successful teachers to the school, the district told the STAR teaching staff they would have to reapply for their jobs. Just three teachers were rehired for Endeavor, breaking up what was by all accounts a dedicated, close-knit staff.

The grant money didn't come through, but superintendent Bryan Blavatt decided to move forward with the changes anyway, starting this school year.

The efforts, Blavatt said, are bearing fruit.

Students are responding well to the computer instruction, and parents react differently when told during pre-expulsion hearings that their children are bound for the district's alternative school, he said.

"Public perception is starting to move away from the old biases toward the STAR program," he said. "I heard last year, 'Well, I don't want them going to STAR; I know someone who went there 10 years ago.' Now, it's 'I've heard good things about Endeavor, and it may work for my child.' "

• • •

Rob Dill walked Endeavor's campus one day last week under the blue sky of a perfect Florida fall day.

"To me, this is one of the best-kept secrets in education," Dill, Endeavor's assistant principal, said as a light breeze rustled giant oak trees that shade the Varsity Drive campus. STAR, which stood for Students at Risk, had operated here since 1996.

A bear of a man with a trace of Southern drawl from his Nashville upbringing, Dill is among the new faces at Endeavor.

Last year, Blavatt hired the 46-year-old former middle and high school administrator to serve as assistant principal at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, where he oversaw the Quest Academy for gifted students.

Debra Harris, who had served as STAR's principal earlier in her career and returned to the post last year, is Endeavor's lead administrator, but Blavatt has tasked her with running the district's eSchool, so he assigned Dill to run Endeavor's day-to-day operations.

Dill had fresh experience in alternative education, spending the 2009-10 school year as principal at the Life Skills Center in Clearwater, a charter school for students ages 16 to 21 who either were at risk of dropping out or wanted to return to earn their diplomas. The school had the same computer-centric teaching model now in place at Endeavor.

"The teachers really serve as tutors rather than direct instructors," Dill said.

The STAR model hinged mainly on smaller classes. The staff made the most of the more intimate settings, Harris said, boasting some of the best learning gains in the district last year and ranking among the highest-performing alternative schools in state.

But that still isn't the most effective way to teach at a school where the population is constantly in flux and comprised of students who are all over the academic spectrum, Blavatt said.

The strategy, however, has to be more nuanced than simply plopping a student in front of a computer, educators said. One-on-one remedial work is critical, and so is another, less intangible element.

"If you can't build the appropriate relationship that's needed to connect with a kid," Dill said, "they won't respond to you."

• • •

William Mattingly dreams of heading to college by way of Springstead High.

That dream was deferred when Mattingly got into a fight with another student last year at Powell Middle School. Now 16, he's playing catch-up at Endeavor.

Like the rest of his Endeavor peers, Mattingly took an online diagnostic test that was then used to create a customized learning plan on software called Compass. The system includes video and animated tutorials with audio to keep students engaged. During a unit on the Founding Fathers, for example, characters in powdered wigs and tailcoats flash across the screen.

There are clear advantages to the Endeavor model, Mattingly said.

"The teachers help more," he said. "And you're more focused on your work."

Mattingly also recognizes the need for another key trait. Take his favorite subject, math, for example.

"To do it on the computer, you have to have self-discipline," he said.

Encouraging students who don't have that discipline is one of the primary roles of the teachers, said Rushton, a 35-year-old veteran teacher who started his career in inner-city Miami and worked at STAR last year.

"Kids who are motivated, they zip right through," Rushton said. "If you've got tail draggers, we have to push them a little bit."

Hard work pays off, though. Endeavor is on an eight-period day, one more than regular schools, so high school students can earn eight credits during the day and more if they enroll in virtual school and work at home.

"If they're behind and are committed to catching up, they can," Dill said.

• • •

By the time Kevin Torres arrived at Endeavor, the 47-year-old Spring Hill resident's resume boasted 26 years in the teaching field.

He started as a junior high school teacher in Harlem in New York City. Later, in Orlando, he worked as an in-school suspension teacher, and spent the last six years at West Hernando Middle and J.D. Floyd K-8. He had worked in just about every area of the profession except alternative education.

Like the rest of the Endeavor faculty, Torres applied knowing that the grant had fallen through and that the district would not be offering incentive pay.

"I truly believe the Lord said, 'Okay, you're ready for this. Let's go,' " he said.

As a remedial reading teacher for every grade, Torres has one-on-one interaction with students. The expectations have been made clear to them, and they understand how high the stakes are, Torres said.

"This environment allows us to see not just who they truly are academically, but the individuals they can become," he said.

The stakes are high for Endeavor teachers, too, just as they are for every Florida teacher, now that a large portion of their annual evaluations are based on student test scores.

With an enrollment hovering around 40 students, Endeavor is too small to receive a school grade in the state's accountability system, but the state still tracks student performance. If scores lag, the school faces sanctions that could include replacing administrators and staff.

That's a cause for concern. But the right ingredients are in place, Torres said: a determined staff, an engaged leader in Dill and targeted remediation.

"That gives us the best possible chance to see success," he said, "because we're addressing deficiencies as quickly as possible."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Endeavor Academy's sweeping changes show signs of success 11/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 5, 2011 1:44pm]

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