It has only been a few weeks, but Kathleen Brown has already seen a difference in her students at Eisenhower Middle School. They listen and participate and come to class on time ready to learn.
Usually her seventh-grade intensive reading class is a little more chaotic.
"Prior it was as if I wasn't in the classroom," she said. "I didn't really matter. They all had their own thoughts and opinions on what we were going to do and how to do it."
The students in the intensive reading class are kids at a crossroads, said Paul Burke, dropout prevention specialist at the school. Test scores have shown they're struggling readers.
"If you're a struggling reader, more than likely you could be struggling in other academic areas," he said.
They've got one more year before high school, where they'll be placed in class levels based on their past academic performance. So the school is trying out a pilot program called Teen Achievers with help from the YMCA to give the students in Brown's class a new kind of education. Once a week, they're learning about things that can help them succeed in school, like responsibility, integrity and commitment.
"Every student has different reasons why they're struggling," said principal Danielle Shotwell. "For some it's a lack of effort, but for a lot of them, they may be behind from past experiences.
"A lot of times some of the outside influences these kids are facing contribute to a lack of focus in school."
Wayne Johnson, director of the Teen Achievers program, began coming into the school on Thursdays a few weeks ago. He meets with Brown's students during their class period near the end of the day.
Brown watches while he leads the kids through lessons on character development. It gives her a chance to observe the students' behavior and a different approach to interacting with them.
"I'm learning just as much as they are," she said.
Starting the program at the end of the year has ended up being a boon, Burke said.
"They've already taken the FCAT. Their motivation level, that wasn't high to begin with, is even lower," he said. "Their brains tell them, I already took the FCAT, I don't need to read."
But the program isn't just about test scores. It's about getting them back on track, getting them ready for high school and ultimately for a productive life after high school.
"We have them focus on the FCAT, but this shows them it's not just about one day," Shotwell said. "It's about continuing to develop and grow."
The program at Eisenhower is part of a larger mission the YMCA has in south Hillsborough County. Plans are ongoing to open a YMCA in the area. Cindy Sofarelli, senior group vice president for the Tampa Metro YMCA, has been working on building business relationships in that area for about three years and joined the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce education committee.
She met Burke at one of the meetings and the two of them worked together to get the Teen Achievers middle school program off the ground at Eisenhower. It's funded through two grants, one from the Interfaith Council of Sun City Center, and a foundation grant designated for services in south county, Sofarelli said. The grants pay for the materials and handouts Johnson brings in and will fund other things like a field trip for the students later this month.
The grants are especially important, Burke said, because Eisenhower is a Title I school where about two-thirds of the students receive free or reduced price lunch. They would otherwise struggle with the fees for something like a field trip.
Johnson has been running Teen Achievers at Blake High School for the past four years. This is the first time they're trying it at the middle school level.
"The earlier you can instill some of these important values and habits to be successful, I think it gives them even more support as they enter into high school," Sofarelli said.
At Blake High School, Johnson says he has seen attitude changes in the students over the past four years. They have higher self-esteem. They're more invested in their futures, whether that means going to college, going into the military or learning a trade.
The program will continue at Eisenhower next year with the same group of students. They've been in talks with other schools, Johnson said, and he hopes to see the program start in other schools in the district.
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.