NEW PORT RICHEY — Until almost the last minute, Joseph Salvatore didn't think he would make it to Gulf High School.
Joseph, 14, had completed all his eighth grade courses. But he still hadn't passed seventh grade civics or science, and so technically he didn't qualify for promotion to his freshman year.
"They were saying, 'If you don't finish, you are going to Schwettman,'" Joseph recalled, referring to Pasco County's west side alternative school. "Then the principal called and told us they were working out something with Gulf High."
The deal was Pasco's new 8.5 program, named for the students' spot between eighth and ninth grade. In the past, their only choice would have been the Schwettman or James Irvin Education Center in Dade City, which are more targeted to children with behavior problems.
But many of the teens who fell into this limbo "weren't necessarily kids who were candidates for alternative school," said Rayann Mitchell, curriculum senior supervisor. "They simply have not been successful."
District-wide, the number of students in that middle ground rose this year to 183 of 5,116 eighth-graders. Of them, teachers and principals determined that 81 were close enough that, given a few more weeks, they could finish the courses.
Many of the students started the effort during summer school but needed a bit more time. So the district set it up to let the students do their middle school work online during first period, and then head to freshman classes with their friends.
The district adopted a more difficult make-up curriculum, as well, to ensure the students have challenging material.
They have until Oct. 3. And they must not get in any trouble at school, or miss classes, lest they face a transfer to the alternative schools.
"It's been only four or five years in which middle school promotion requirements were put in place," said Darrell Huling, supervisor of innovative programs. "We were using an old model of helping kids recover courses under a new situation. We really needed to do something to help the kids earn that promotion."
Gulf High principal Kim Davis came up with the new idea.
She saw students who would come to Gulf as freshmen in the second semester, after earning promotion at Schwettman, and they had trouble adjusting to the larger high school. They also had missed the first semester of instruction, so they remained behind academically.
"We were seeing them failing," Davis said.
On the flip side, the expectation was that if the teens stayed with their grade-level peers, and saw high school as real, they'd be more likely to succeed.
"We know if they fall behind their cohort, the chances of dropping out increase," Huling said.
So rather than lose those kids, Davis told Gulf Middle principal Jason Joens to "send me your 8.5's." The concept filtered up to the district office, where the kinks were worked out, and made its way to all county high schools for the new year.
Joseph, one of 13 students in Gulf High's program, was grateful. Fairly large for his age, he worried that he would face fights if he went to Schwettman.
"I'm happy to be here in high school," he said Monday. "This is a privilege. … I can move on with all my friends."
He's made progress on his two middle school courses, with just one exam remaining in science and half the work to do in civics. When he's done, Joseph hopes replace them with a photography elective, which Davis said she will work to make happen.
Mitchell acknowledged the 8.5 program remains a work in progress. For instance, teachers could use more training on how to blend online and classroom instruction, she said.
But she and others sounded confident that they've found a way to keep more students on the path to a diploma.
"They were just dealt a raw hand. I wanted them," Davis said, noting the 8.5 students have fit into the school well so far. "They're not an alternative-setting child. They just needed someone to help them out."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.