Education

Acceleration Academies, Wake County students profit from 2nd chance at diploma

Wake Acceleration Academy helps students stay in school

Kristin Ramos,16, talks about how the new Wake County Acceleration Academy allowed her to stay in class and not drop out of high school.
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Kristin Ramos,16, talks about how the new Wake County Acceleration Academy allowed her to stay in class and not drop out of high school.

A for-profit company could earn millions of dollars this school year by recruiting and educating Wake County high school dropouts who are trying to receive their diplomas.

The Wake County school system has turned to Chicago-based Acceleration Academies to start a new program where former students are getting a second chance to complete the classes they need to graduate. It’s the latest example of how for-profits have been expanding into the dropout recovery market, at times providing their services at low or no cost to get the contracts.

“It’s a growth area,” said Patte Barth, director of the National School Boards Association’s Center For Public Education. “There’s just a lot of money. There’s a lot of motivation.”

Wake County school officials say it made sense to turn to an experienced provider such as Acceleration Academies, which was able to open sites two months after the school board approved the contract in June. Wake school administrators promoted the academies as a way to help reach the district’s goal of having a 95 percent graduation rate by 2020.

“We have chosen to partner with a proven, research-based program,” said Marlo Gaddis, Wake’s senior director of instructional technology and library media services. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.”

Teacher unions have objected to privatization of dropout recovery programs. The New Mexico chapter of the National Education Association opposed efforts by Santa Fe Public Schools to hire Acceleration Academies, then called Atlantic Education Partners.

“Private companies are in business primarily to make a profit for their owners and stakeholders,” said Charles Goodmacher, government relations director for NEA New Mexico. “We don’t feel it’s appropriate for public moneys to enhance somebody’s profit line.”

Mark Graves, the chief operating officer for Acceleration Academies, said they’re serving 1,335 students in Florida and Washington state with 30 graduates since the beginning of last school year

Acceleration Academies opened two sites in Raleigh and one in Garner, each serving as many as 250 students. Graves said there are 272 students – between the ages of 16 and 21 – enrolled so far. While the program could have as many as 750 students this year, Wake would be happy with 400 to 500 students, schools officials said.

Wake will pay Acceleration Academies $5,600 for each student, roughly the amount that the district gets per student in state and federal dollars. The academies are generating revenue for Wake, which is getting roughly $2,300 per student in local dollars for every student enrolled without having to run the sites.

Acceleration Academies could take in between $1.5 million and $4.2 million this school year depending on how many students the company enrolls by the 40th day of school in mid-October. Wake could receive between $600,000 and $1.7 million.

Using lists provided by the school system, Acceleration Academies had recruiters go door to door visiting dropouts. Recruiters hung up signs around the community and visited churches.

The recruiting helped bring in Jaylan Rice, 20, of Garner, who had attended three Wake high schools before dropping out. Rice said she was the “class clown” as a teenager but is determined now to get her diploma so that she can go to college and become a biomedical engineer.

“They’re giving me this opportunity,” Rice said. “They’re not giving up on me, so I don’t want to give up on them.”

What’s helped attract students is that the academies aren’t like a traditional high school. The company put locations in shopping centers near public transit and provides students with free bus passes. Students, called graduation candidates, will also get free computer tablets that they can keep.

The academies use an approach called “blended learning,” which means students attend the academy for classes but also may complete some of their coursework at home, based on their work schedules and other obligations. Students are required to show up in person twice a week, where they can meet face to face with teachers, who are called content coaches.

The academies are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday.

“This is not what a traditional school would be like,” said John Williams, a retired Wake principal who is executive director of the Wake County Acceleration Academies. “This is the way school should be like in the 21st century.”

In addition to the academic support, students receive counseling and social services. For instance, a career counselor helps students find jobs, and the academies can help arrange child care options.

That flexibility is the reason Kristin Ramos, 16, of Raleigh, transferred from Middle Creek High School near Apex to the academy in Garner.

Ramos said that having a 4-month-old daughter means there are times she has to stay home. All those absences at a traditional high school would have prevented her from graduating, she said.

“If it weren’t for this, I don’t know what I would have done,” Ramos said. “This was really a lifesaver for me.”

Ramos is now working at her own pace and has a goal of graduating in February. She’s been able to complete courses in as few as two weeks. The academy’s approach has students take one course at a time.

“A lot of kids don’t drop out because they have academic proficiency issues,” said Drew Cook, Wake’s senior director for high school programs. “They may have social and emotional issues, family issues, cultural and environmental issues to overcome.”

Cook called the State Board of Education’s 2012 adoption of rules that allowed students to pass courses without meeting minimum seat-time requirements a “game changer.”

Joseph Wise, co-founder and chief executive officer of Acceleration Academies, said the academies give choices to students who don’t do well in the “one-size-fits-all” approach to high school education that he said has failed too many young people.

“Borrowing capacity from an outside entity like ours to recruit and re-engage kids that are normally lost to dropping out, is a great strategy,” Wise said in a statement. “It creates wins – for the kids, for the local communities, and for the local educators and school district.”

But Goodmacher of the New Mexico NEA said the group would rather have these programs run by school systems.

“When there’s an issue with the academic program, the public ought to be in control of the public moneys for the delivery of the education program itself,” he said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

Open house for Acceleration Academies

An open house for the three Wake County Acceleration Academies will be Oct. 12 from 2 to 4 p.m. at 1423 Garner Station Blvd. in Garner.

Go to www.accelerationacademy.org/wake/ for more information on the academies.

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