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Expanded electives engage students at the James Irvin Education Center in Dade City

DADE CITY

Lori Savoy raised her voice above her journalism students to refocus their conversation on possible editorial topics for the next class newsletter.

Corporal punishment, one boy offered up.

A four-day school week, suggested another.

How about a proposal to change Florida's graduation requirements, Savoy proposed.

For the next 15 minutes, they hashed over their options. And they certainly had strong views.

Sophomore Eric Negron argued for a four-day class week — the idea that ultimately won — listing benefits for the school district in reduced transportation costs plus a three-day weekend for kids.

"Thursday would be the new Friday," he said, grinning. "Yeah."

The discussion continued until freshman Tyler Norrell piped up from the corner, "Do you know what animal farts the most?"

Savoy glanced over and admitted she didn't.

"The termite," Tyler answered, to which Savoy simply shrugged and responded that such information wouldn't be appropriate for the school newsletter. They moved on.

Six months ago, there wasn't even a journalism class at the James Irvin Education Center, an alternative school for students who had extremely poor academic performance or behavioral issues at Pasco's other high schools. Student electives were limited to physical education, general music (without instruments), stained glass and bicycle repair.

When Nancy Guss took over as principal in the fall, she set out to change that.

She surveyed students to find out what types of courses would interest them. When one teacher retired, she hired another — Savoy — with credentials to instruct in two of the areas that kids wanted.

The school added journalism and drama under Savoy, revived its woodworking/construction course and made plans to offer agriculture, job placement and leadership classes in the fall.

"I try to offer what they want," Guss said, explaining that the key to keeping her school of about 130 students interested is to engage them. "The kids are so excited."

Two reasons why:

First, the classes give them new opportunities.

"It's better than all the other classes," ninth-grader Josh Ewar said of journalism, calling much of his past school experience "boring."

"In journalism, you can just write about what is going on in the world," Eric Negron added.

Second, the classes give them a voice.

"We get to express how we feel about things," junior Majerle Bien-Aime said, adding with pride that he sold his first ad recently. "With other classes, you couldn't do that."

The changes to the school, freshman Alicia Perez said, are definitely good.

"This class is fun," she said, "and it's just interesting, something different from what we were doing last semester."

Savoy, who joined Irvin after 12 years at Wesley Chapel High School, admits to being "a little scared" at the prospect of working at the school.

"You hear horrible things," she said.

Yet her experience offered a completely different perspective. "The students have been fabulous," Savoy said. "They did what they had to do."

She spoke of one student who sat in amazement after seeing his name in print, telling her he had never been recognized for anything before. And now the kids are getting positive recognition for their school work.

"The key is rapport, listening to them," Guss said. "If you don't let them do it in a positive way, they will do it in a negative way."

The journalism and drama courses now have Irvin's best attendance rates.

"I see kids being more excited about some of their classes," said guidance counselor Cynthia Ryalls-Clephane, who has been at Irvin since 2001.

She spoke of helping a drama student prepare a monologue from Julius Caesar that he would later perform in the school's courtyard, with several students watching.

"It was great," she said. "A year ago, he didn't talk to anybody. He didn't smile. He didn't interact. This year, he is always smiling."

Ninth-grader Oraida Tablada endured the hot sun, and the complaints about the heat from her partner, to practice the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. She recently arrived at Irvin after getting in trouble at Wesley Chapel High.

She said she liked the opportunity the drama course provided (although she balked at any thought of kissing that the scene might require).

"It's fun," Oraida said. "We get to be outside instead of being in a classroom. We get to act out here."

She also appreciated other aspects that the small, alternative school offered.

"Here, it is a lot nicer," she said. "The teachers care about their students more. … Since the classes aren't so big, people get involved more and they actually learn."

That aspect, too, is critical to keeping students in school, Guss said.

Many times, the teens who end up at Irvin struggled in their mainstream schools. Their tendency to speak out got them in trouble, or their shyness and unwillingness to ask questions left them behind.

At Irvin, Guss said, the goal is to work past students' problems and discover a path for their success. Adding more courses to give them a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment is one of those paths, she said.

"Sometimes they may be perceived as difficult human beings, but they are still worthy of being treated with dignity and respect," Guss said. "A lot of our kids have lost hope. When we bring them hope for things they like to do that are academic in nature, then we improve their engagement."

Majerle Bien-Aime, for one, has tried to digest that lesson.

"School isn't boring for me," he said. "I make the best of every day."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Expanded electives engage students at the James Irvin Education Center in Dade City 04/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 10:27pm]

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