The Wake County school system wants to boost the high school graduation rate by doing more to keep students from dropping out and by recruiting those who’ve left to return to earn their diplomas.
School leaders hope to hire a private company to start three “acceleration academies” in August that will help 750 high school dropouts get a second chance to complete their schooling and graduate. The academies are on the fast track because they won’t require district funding to run them.
The district also hopes to start a “blended learning academy,” potentially in 2016, for students who are considering dropping out because the traditional high school setting doesn’t work for them. This academy would need district funding so the opening date is uncertain.
These new efforts come as Wake is working toward the goal of having 95 percent of students graduating high school by 2020. The graduation rate is currently 82.9 percent.
“I’m excited that this sets us on a road to provide opportunities to some kids,” school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said a board committee meeting last week. “As long as we are serious about reaching a 95-percent graduation rate with all of the qualities that we want in our graduates, we’ve got to look for things other than our comprehensive high schools.”
Both new academies share some similar traits: smaller school environments that allow for individualized learning; a mixture of online classes and in-person learning; and flexible school hours.
Firm recruits dropouts
Administrators expect to present a contract soon for Chicago-based Acceleration Academies LLC to open three academies, each serving 250 students. The company currently serves 1,050 former dropouts in academies that opened this school year in Florida and Washington.
Mark Graves, chief operating officer of Acceleration Academies, said the company is working with Wake because its top officers are former superintendents who know Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill and consider him an innovative leader.
“(Merrill) realizes that the dropout crisis in this country won’t be addressed unless you try something new,” Graves said in an interview.
Wake has turned to private companies before to run schools, such as the former Richard Milburn High School. That school was closed for budget reasons.
But for the new program, Acceleration Academies would run on the state and federal funding provided for each student with the district keeping the local funding. Graves called it a win-win.
Graves said the company would get a list of Wake dropouts, ages 16 to 21, and go knocking door to door to recruit them. With about 800 to 1,000 dropouts in Wake each year out of 44,000 high school students, there would be a ready supply.
Cathy Moore, Wake’s deputy superintendent for school performance, said a big selling point for the acceleration academies will be that they’re giving the dropouts something different from what they had before.
“We’re not just sending you back to the same school you were at or some other school,” she said. “We’re doing something specific for you.”
Briefed last week, Wake school board members were enthusiastic about the acceleration academies.
“To have as a goal to rescue 750 young people – 70 percent of which will probably be male – is laudable and, I think, a terrific opportunity for Wake County to embrace as we seek to improve the outcomes for all of the kids that we touch,” said board member Bill Fletcher, chairman of the student achievement committee.
Online, classroom blend
Board members were also supportive of the blended learning academy. It gets its name from the blending of online classes with face-to-face instruction. It’s modeled on programs such as the iPrep Academy in Miami, Fla.
Instead of a traditional school setting, students would have open classroom areas where the desks can be moved around. When not in the classrooms, students can spend time in a common area working with others, go to a private study room, have coffee in the cafe or work out in the fitness center.
Students would work at their own pace with teachers helping to keep them on track.
Administrators are still fleshing out the target audience for the blended learning academy. But examples could include students who don’t do well in a large school environment or are who having a hard time juggling work or parenting responsibilities with regular school hours.
“We know that we have students that drop out of high school that are not necessarily three to four grade levels behind in achievement,” said Todd Wirt, Wake’s assistant superintendent for academics. “They may be disenfranchised with being part of a large 2,800-student high school and are lost in that atmosphere. They may have life circumstances that are making it difficult to complete an 8-to-3 day.”
But the blended learning academy would require district funds to start operations. Moore, the deputy superintendent, said there’s a slim possibility of its starting in January. It’s more likely, funding permitting, to begin in the 2016-17 school year.
Down the road, Wirt said he could envision five regional blended learning academies, each serving 150 to 200 students. But in the beginning, Wake wants to start one site, with perhaps as few as 30 to 50 students, to work out the kinks.
Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui