WESLEY CHAPEL — Nicole Bostick could have spent her lunch period in the school cafeteria, eating a cheeseburger or a buffalo chicken salad without giving her homework a thought.
Instead, Bostick, a 16-year-old sophomore, spent the noon hour in Wesley Chapel High's learning center, poring over an essay about whether students should be allowed to use cell phones in school.
"I'd rather get my grades up," Bostick said of her almost daily decision to forego lunch for time in the center, also known as learning labs in other county high schools. "My grades aren't that good. I'd rather take responsibility than hang out with friends."
She wasn't alone. As the minutes ticked by, more than a dozen students trickled in, all with one goal in mind — getting a little individualized attention on the work that vexed them, be it economics, algebra, Spanish or whatever.
Learning labs are almost deceptively simple: Certified teachers spend time in a large room filled with tables, comfortable chairs, computers and books, waiting for students who need help to come and ask for it.
But in the two years the Pasco school district has used them, the labs have become a top tool in the district's dropout prevention effort. Ramon Suarez, who oversees graduation enhancement programs, credited their implementation as key to getting Pasco off the state's watch list for too many dropouts among special needs students — not to mention a 40 percent decrease in the overall dropout rate.
"It's about making connections," Suarez said. "That's the No. 1 reason many students are dropping out. ... They isolate themselves from school. This helps them connect with teachers and find a place where they can get help."
That would be help any time they need it, including during class. During the 2007-08 academic year, 8,578 of the 14,224 student visits to Wesley Chapel High's lab came with classroom teacher passes.
"The students know it's always open," said Bridget White, Wesley Chapel's special education department chair, who helps run the lab. "They can come any time, and they know someone is going to help them."
Some teachers are assigned to the center. Others volunteer. The buy-in has only grown as educators have come to see the value the learning labs provide.
One of the primary reasons for their success, Suarez said, is because students get assistance when they need it, rather than having to wait hours, days or perhaps weeks for a remedial lesson.
"Some struggle with the way their teachers teach," said Pam McLaughlin, a student support assistance program teacher. "They just need an extra person who may teach differently or provide one-on-one (help). ... As long as they use our service, it definitely helps."
That's critical for students like Bostick, who has contemplated whether to remain in school.
"I was like, 'I'm done,' " she admitted. "I was thinking about dropping out. But I didn't want to disappoint my mom and dad and sister. I wanted to change peoples' minds from thinking I can't do anything right in life. ... I come in here every day."
So does freshman Jessica Baeza, 14, who comes seeking assistance on science, English and math beyond what her classroom instructors offer.
"The teachers, they don't really explain it that well, so I come in here. They explain it easier," she said as she worked on some algebra equations. "I'm a person where you have to break it down and show me step by step."
Senior Kenroy Shaw said the teachers in the learning lab "really saved me." He was working on his senior project, yet had fallen hopelessly behind. The teachers in the lab helped him with the researching, "I pulled it off and actually got a good grade."
Once upon a time, Shaw, 17, said he would go to the media center to study. But he figured there must be a better place to go. Then he heard about the learning lab, and started making a daily trek there during his lunch period.
Now he swears by it — and he tells his friends.
"It really helps," Shaw said. "I wish I had a learning center at home."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.