Kids who failed eighth grade came here last August with reams of missed days, defiant attitudes, stories of shattered families. Could they make it to 10th grade in one short year?
They failed eighth grade. Could they make it to 10th in one short school year?
At the front of the classroom, a pretty girl dressed in pink perches on a tall stool caressing a white teddy bear. In the back, a boy, eyes shooting daggers, slumps at a table.
Off to the side, another boy, apparently asleep, sits with legs outstretched. A curtain of hair covers his face. His fingernails are painted black.
It's the next-to-the-last day of the school year at Lealman Intermediate, and English teacher Jean Maggi is attempting to engage her mostly 15-year-old students in a dialogue.
Some kids are paying attention. Others are a million miles away.
"I know it's been tough to be on a middle school campus when you're big, bad high schoolers in your head," Maggi says. "But at some point, you wanted to change. Now, you're going down another road."
She pauses a moment to let the words sink in: "You have the power, the control, to write your own stories."
The kids catch fire. Even those who weren't paying attention earlier perk up.
And so it has played out over the past nine months in this classroom, the scene of a dropout prevention program called 8.5.
Some Pinellas administrators doubted that it would be possible to take a group of kids who couldn't pass eighth grade, expose them to ninth-grade curriculum and turn them into 10th-graders in one school year, even with the benefit of a small setting and tons of remedial help.
Although some of the 36 students who came to Lealman last fall fell by the wayside, about three-quarters of them will be full-fledged high school sophomores when school reopens in August.
Another group completed the program at Clearwater Intermediate.
Dee Burns, the district's supervisor for dropout prevention, calls that a success.
"We predict for them a future," Burns said, "a sense that they will not be left behind."
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Lealman Intermediate principal Cheryl DiCicco, who has spent most of her career in dropout prevention, acknowledges that such a program appears counterintuitive. Nearly all of the students who ended up in 8.5 missed scores of days and racked up double-digit discipline referrals at the middle schools they came from. And while most of them were academically capable, they arrived angry and defiant.
Still, DiCicco and Clearwater Intermediate principal Freddie Robinson were determined to keep them on track for graduation, since research shows that kids who are over age for their grade level are more likely to drop out.
Getting beyond their tough exteriors was the first challenge. Maggi, the English teacher at Lealman, began by encouraging them to tell their "backstories."
Over and over, she heard tales of families with no food in their refrigerators, families getting their electricity turned off, families being evicted. One girl's mother had tried to kill her. One boy was taking care of his father, who has gangrene.
The saddest cases, said Maggi, 44, were kids who were bounced from household to household because one or both of their parents were in jail.
"They have heartbreaking stories," she said. "That doesn't mean they should be allowed to break the rules; it just means they should be considered on an individual basis."
That's what 8.5 allowed the teachers to do, Maggi says. Coursework wasn't watered down. Instead, it was tailored to meet each student's needs. Small classes allowed for individual attention. Social workers and behavior specialists provided extra support.
Maggi was startled by her students' intelligence. When she saw their test scores in September, she wondered: Why are they not sophomores or juniors?
Maybe, she concluded as first semester melted into second, they're simply rebels without a cause.
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Michael Cantrell knew his life was out of control when he failed eighth grade at Riviera Middle School. He says now that he needed a drastic wakeup call to teach him that "education is nothing to play around with."
At first suspicious of the program's claim that he could get back on track, he decided to give it his all even as a few of his friends refused to make the commitment.
"They were like, 'I'm going to do this but I'm not going to do that,' " said Michael, 15. "I had the full determination that I was going to do what I had to do so I could be a 10th-grader."
Janet Butler, also 15, knows that she messed up in eighth grade. The sense of failure that followed her to Lealman nearly overwhelmed her. But like Michael, she came to school every day this year and embraced Maggi's mantra to "sit down, think, focus."
"I proved to myself I can pass," Janet said. "I proved to myself I'm better than I thought I was."
For 15-year-old Andrew Walker, 8.5 was about learning to respect himself.
"I didn't care about anything before," he said. "Everyone thought I was going to be a loser."
Michael, Janet, Andrew and the other students formed a tight bond this year, Maggi said. They often came to school an hour before first bell to hang out in her classroom and talk.
Together, they mourned the loss of a classmate who turned 16 and decided to drop out. They worried for the safety of another classmate who ran away from home and was missing for three weeks.
They also shared the joy of a mid-semester "moving up" ceremony after they earned enough credits to be considered ninth-graders. Maggi took them out to lunch to celebrate.
Not long after that, she started hearing them say, "I'm going to graduate in 2011."
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While district officials laud the students' confidence and enthusiasm, they're well aware of the challenges that lie ahead. The graduation rate in Pinellas in 2007 was a dismal 67 percent. The 2008 graduation rate, which will be announced in the fall, isn't expected to be much better.
Topping the list of factors that cause students to lose interest in school, said deputy superintendent for curriculum Harry Brown, is the statewide emphasis on preparing them for standardized tests.
"Far too many classes have become flat boring," Brown said. "That's why we've been working very hard to make the curriculum relevant for kids."
Among the initiatives the district plans to implement: career technical education options that will allow students to earn nationally recognized industry certifications along with their high school diplomas.
But those options may not materialize soon enough for Maggi's 8.5 kids.
"In 10th grade," she said, "they won't have anyone holding their hands."
Her fervent hope is that the program gave them the tools they'll need to rise above difficult family situations, to resist peer pressure, to keep moving forward.
And that they'll take advantage of this second chance to write happy endings to their stories.
Donna Winchester can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8413.