ST. PETERSBURG — The motto "Cooperate, collaborate and graduate on time" is becoming gospel to students in the new "school-within-a-school" fundamental program at Gibbs High School.
"We have a cohort of students all in one class and it helps us to learn better together," said Gloria Lockhart, 15, one of two dozen freshmen in the first of what Gibbs officials hope will be many fundamental classes to come.
To mark the halfway point of the program's inaugural year, the school celebrated its partnership Wednesday with United Healthcare, which has helped in the venture. Students gathered in the media center between classes to meet with United executives as well as representatives from the Pinellas County School District and the city of St. Petersburg.
Afterward, students received "Gibbs High School Fundamental" yellow polo shirts along with goodie bags from United.
To start the program, the school selected 25 students based on good behavior records in middle school and low FCAT scores. The class has shrunk to 23 students since the beginning of the year. But the students stick together, attending half their classes, including English and science, as a group.
Administrators keep a close eye on their grades, attendance and behavior. They also plan field trips and guest speakers to keep kids motivated.
"We basically are their parents" during the school day, said ninth-grade assistant principal Larry Balduff, who also oversees the fundamental program. "We want to make sure we sponsor them any way we can."
It is similar to school-within-a-school fundamental programs currently recognized by the district at Boca Ciega and Dunedin high schools. Those programs focus on student responsibility and discipline, daily homework, a stricter dress code and required parent attendance at conferences and monthly meetings.
Until Gibbs' program is approved by the district, the goal for now is to motivate students to improve their overall academic performance and graduate on time.
With a few exceptions, Gibbs' fundamental students have grade-point averages above 2.0 — higher than most of the traditional freshmen at the school, Balduff said.
"We want to make sure it's not a 'have-to' with these kids," he said. "It's a 'want-to.' "
School-within-a-school coordinator Donald Johnson says he sees the students steadily improving during his seventh-period freshman experience class. Every Thursday, class members log their grades to track their progress.
The class goal is for each student to enroll in one or two Advanced Placement or honors classes next year, when they are sophomores.
"This is a group of students who actually want to be successful," he said. "They want more than what they have now."
Next year, the school plans to bring in 50 students for the freshman fundamental program, adding 25 to each class every year until there are 400 students in all four grades.
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Lockhart, who aspires to be a pediatrician, said her mom motivated her to join the program. She came to Gibbs from the science and technology magnet at Bay Point Middle School. She has always had good grades but struggles in math. When asked if the fundamental program has helped her, she shrugged and smiled.
"A little," she said. "Geometry is hard."
Colleen Wright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.