Outgoing principal Drew Cook and his staff at Garner Magnet High School have long-touted the importance of ninth grade; students who find success their freshman year tend to carry it forward and graduate.
This year the school, in partnership with the Garner Education Foundation and two local middle schools, hopes to give academically at-risk students a head start in adjusting for high school, giving them a better chance to swim rather than sink.
The program mirrors a similar, multi-year effort the last few years at Garner and a few other high schools to help struggling students in the class graduating next spring.
For four days per week over four weeks, 27 students from North and East Garner middle schools have spent time working on weaknesses in math and language arts in an effort to prepare them for their first year of high school.
Some of the students needed the transition academy in order for their middle school to let them move on. Others were simply students who had struggled in end-of-year testing contacted by the school and offered details on the program.
Assistant principal Mark Maultsby has long been working with Cook on efforts to install transition programs. He said it’s all about not letting kids fall through the cracks.
“We want to seal the cracks up here,” Maultsby said. “They’re good kids, but they’re not getting the attention they need because they’re all good kids.”
Along with lessons to bring math and literacy skills up to speed – taught by the same teachers who will teach them in the fall – they are also having their future counselors and other people talk to them about study habits and social skills so they know what to expect in high school.
Some of the money for the program – which largely went toward teacher pay – came from a $5,000 grant from the Garner Education Foundation, money that will also be there next year according to the chair of GEF’s media and technology committee, Margaret Bingham. She said another $5,000 came from a grant secured by the high school and $3,500 from the Duke Energy Foundation.
“It’s the very beginning, and it’s certainly a program GEF is interested in tracking,” Bingham said.
Bingham expressed confidence that the Duke grant would be available next year. While Garner High’s priorities could be in flux until a new principal is chosen to replace Cook – who was just promoted to WCPSS central office – Maultsby said he was committed to more than just finding ways to maintain the program.
“We want to expand. Drew Cook was on board to expand it,” Maultsby said “We’d love to see 60 kids.”
Like Garner High, East Garner Middle is also looking for a principal after Cathy Williams’ retirement. But the lone remaining principal from last year, Greg Butler, supports the program.
“The more intervention, the more you can prepare a child, (the better),” Butler said. “That (ninth grade) year is crucial.”
As Maultsby noted, no student is happy to surrender four weeks of summer to a few hours of school per day. But he said the effort could help students in ways that couldn’t be done during the school year.
“They just need that extra boost to move on up,” Maultsby said. “A lot of time the discipline issues are that they don’t get (the academics), and they’re not going to be embarrassed by it in front of their peers. So they’re going to do anything they can to get out. ‘I don’t want to read in front of a class, so I’m going to get out of here.’ And they have the comfort that everyone’s in the same boat.”
Cook and Maultsby worked in a program with three other high schools starting a few years ago. That effort begain with 20 students at Garner High that will graduate this year. Of the 20 in the program, Maultsby said, two left the area, 17 will graduate on time, and one will graduate early. Some became honors students.
“Drew Cook wrote the grant. (The other schools) loved it, they said yes, this is what we need,” Maultsby said. “We were highly upset when it ended. Drew came to me in the fall and said there was the opportunity to get it going again.”
He said beyond academic gains, the program feeds into the broader efforts to soothe a ninth grade transition the administration regards as crucial – including starting up the ninth grade center. Cook lauded the side effect that the new facility – built to help the school deal with overcrowding – would allow the school isolate freshmen in an environment with fewer distractions.
Butler said the parents’ response to the program this year was positive. Students not under threat of being held back at the middle school but behind academically accepted invitations.
“It addresses multiple things. It let’s high school teachers see if academic gaps need to be addressed. Sometimes it’s a motivation issue, in that ‘I haven’t put forth the effort that I needed to put forth.’ And this, you have to put forth the effort,” Butler said. “This is your one last shot to go to high school next year. No you may not have shown us you’re ready, so now show the high school folks you’re ready.”