RIVERVIEW — A year ago, they might have been voted least likely to succeed.
They were stuck in eighth grade, biding their time until they could leave school. Some had failed classes and had been held back in previous grades, while others had caused trouble or played hooky. Many would soon be 16 — old enough to drop out without ever having started ninth grade.
But this spring, about 60 middle school students at Giunta and Webb middle schools are on the verge of doing something no one could have predicted: vaulting over freshman year and starting high school as sophomores.
They're part of a unique effort in Hillsborough County to capture some of the hundreds of over-age students who find themselves in a bottleneck in eighth grade, unable to advance after multiple failures. Teachers in the pilot STAR Academy program use a hands-on, computer-based curriculum and plenty of personal attention to help students catch up with their peers.
"It gives you an extra push," said Michael Nunez, 16, a student at Giunta in Riverview. "This is the first time in middle school where I have all good grades in a row."
Last year, students in the Giunta program outscored their peers on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, surpassing the school's passing average by 5 percentage points in math and 11 points in science. Some even made the honor roll.
Out of 171 students who have started the program, 127 have passed and moved on to high school, including 36 this spring at Giunta and 27 at Webb, according to teachers at the two schools. All but a handful leave with enough credits to start as 10th-graders.
On a recent visit to the Giunta program, students in Barbara Gable's science class were hard at work on computer-based labs.
At one station, Linda Beard, 16, and Dakota Payne, 15, were analyzing soil samples. After viewing an introduction on their monitor, they quickly assembled beakers containing soil and water and began their measurements.
"Ah, there's a rock in here," Beard said under her breath, plucking out a pebble that could throw off their results.
Next door in Melissa Diaz's math class, Nunez and classmate Caleb Gomez, 15, had finished calculating the distance a projectile would travel at various angles. Now they moved into the hall to test their math under real-world conditions.
Nunez assembled a contraption and aimed, while Gomez held a Hula Hoop a dozen feet away. Then he fired, hitting his target.
Several students from Giunta's regular middle school program paused between classes to watch the spectacle.
"It's like high school in middle school," one whispered to her friend as they headed for class.
It's a big change for the boys, who had grown used to being regarded as problem students in the regular middle school program. For Gomez, family troubles had led to chronic truancy. Nunez had simply slipped through the cracks, finding little motivation to work hard.
"The teachers, they'd put all the good students in the front of the room and the bad students in the back," Nunez said. "It made me feel like I was behind. It's easier to focus in this class, because the teachers are always on you."
English teacher Liz Hawley said students quickly discover there's nowhere to hide in the STAR program.
"Most of the people we lose, we lose right at the beginning," she said. "Quickly they realize, this is tough. I'm doing two years of work in one year."
The program is not for everyone. To qualify, students and parents must make a persuasive case that they're capable of handling ninth grade work, both in an application and interviews with teachers.
So far, the STAR program has only enrolled around half of its 120-student capacity. The two sites serve the entire district, but unlike magnet programs, students don't qualify for school bus service.
That lack of transportation has posed a challenge, but it hasn't stopped committed families from signing up, said resource teacher Matt Rothenberger. "One parent whose lease was ending said, 'I'll move closer if that's going to make the difference.' "
Rothenberger said the self-paced modules from Pitsco Education, a Kansas-based curriculum supplier, are a good match for the students, and the teachers provide close support and connections with parents.
"There's a personal connection that's made," said Gable, the science teacher at Giunta. "Sometimes kids are missing that. If they don't have that personal connection with an adult in the school, they don't have that drive to succeed."
Giunta principal Arlene Castelli said the program makes a huge difference for its students, who make up just a fraction of the estimated 115 over-age eighth-graders at her 1,150-student school.
"Parents almost give up because they don't know how to try and motivate their kids," she said. "STAR builds in the parent component and often forges a bond between the students and parents once again."
Finding the interest
Over at Webb Middle School in Town 'N Country, team leader Selma Claxton said teachers discovered a student who had just one goal in life: to become an electrician. They promptly reorganized his program to focus on that interest.
"Each kid is good at something," Claxton said. "The trick is to find out what that thing is and use it to teach them everything else."
Another Webb student recently sent her teachers a long letter, telling them how much the program helped her.
"Now she wants to be the smart one and the one who's getting her work done," said assistant principal Lillie Johnson. "For those students who made it through to the end, you just see the light come on."
For Karl Fuller, who just finished his sophomore year at Spoto High, his motivation turned out to be plants.
Two years ago, his mother asked that he be retained in eighth grade, even though he'd passed his courses. His reading and writing just weren't up to scratch, and it was clear to her that he wasn't ready.
"For his friends to be moving ahead, that put a lot of strain on him," Carla Fuller said. "I told him 'No matter what, I'm always going to be there for you. You have nothing to hold your head down about.' "
The following year, Karl won an award at Giunta for his newfound prowess at gardening. Now he's looking forward to college studies in botany and a career working in nurseries.
"We got more work, and the work was harder," Karl said, recalling the year he turned his life around. "It made me believe I'm capable of achieving something."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.