With Twilight School, enlightenment dawns

Education: An Arundel program helps ninth-graders who have faltered during the transition to high school.

April 13, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The corridors of Glen Burnie High School have emptied out. The yellow buses have departed with their student cargo. It's 2:30 p.m. - and the bell rang more than 30 minutes ago.

Bryan Pawlicki's biology class has just begun.

His students - all ninth-graders - are doing an experiment that should help explain why skinny kids feel the cold faster than those with a little meat. Two beakers are filled with ice water. One holds a thermometer encased in a glob of shortening (a form of fat); the other, a thermometer exposed directly to the cold bath. Every 30 seconds, students gather temperature readings, and soon it is clear that the shortening keeps the thermometer from a quick freeze.

This is hardly detention. It's Twilight School, an after-school program offering credit courses for Glen Burnie ninth-graders who failed a class during their first semester in high school. Other school systems have twilight programs, but theirs typically are for disruptive students as an alternative to suspension.

What makes this program different is that it attempts to address a problem early by giving a second chance to freshmen who weren't up to the surprising rigors they found after leaving middle school. If they pass Twilight School, the E on their report cards (Anne Arundel County's version of an F) is erased and replaced, a credit toward graduation earned.

"I think everyone realizes there's a serious need to help out their ninth-graders," said Nelson C. Horine II, the program's coordinator by afternoon, science department chairman by day and evening school principal by night. "At this point, [the students] have decided this is their best shot. They've got to make it work."

Hope to expand program

Glen Burnie High started Twilight School during the spring semester of 2000. It was part of the effort to make the 2,000-plus student campus seem a bit smaller by breaking the 600-plus freshman class into a more manageable size. Twilight School classes contain 12 to 15 students, small by the standard of 30 or more to a daytime class.

This semester, Meade, Annapolis and North County high schools are trying the twilight concept. School board members hope to expand it in the fall to all 12 high schools in Anne Arundel County - they have asked County Executive Janet S. Owens for $60,000 for the program.

"When you look at ninth-grade student achievement, all the schools definitely need it," said Karl Behringer, the school district's coordinator for career and continuing education.

Classes at Glen Burnie are held two afternoons a week, Monday and Wednesday, for 90 minutes each. This semester, the offering is English or biology. Some semesters, the program might offer government or algebra. For now, students can take one class, but Horine said the program could be expanded to allow ninth-graders to make up two classes in a semester.

Students have other options. They can attend summer school (which costs more than the $50 fee for Twilight School) or retake the course during the day. But Twilight School's version of hand-holding includes counseling, assistance with study skills, and small class size, designed to prevent students from squeezing through without doing the work.

Steven Addis, 15, took biology second period last semester. "I didn't try real hard," he said. "I just kept falling asleep in that class."

So he failed.

He failed government, too.

Now he's trying harder. He's staying awake as Pawlicki goes over the basics of biology - the carbohydrates and the sugars, the lipids and the fatty acids. "He makes it easy for us and explains it all," Steven said.

Steven will have to take government during summer school. "That's the last time I'll take summer school," he vowed. "I'm going to do good in all the rest of the grades."

It's a long day. High school starts at 7:17 a.m., and Steven doesn't head home until 4 p.m.

Charlotte Thomas, who teaches English in the Twilight School, allows a little more chatter in her room than during day school, as long as the work gets done. But she's no pushover. A phone sits beside her desk, and when students are absent, she calls their homes to see where they are.

"We don't want to let them hurt themselves again," she said.

A group at risk

It's too early to know how much this program will help over the long term. Behringer said the average student who finishes a twilight course at Glen Burnie earns a B. But some don't finish.

Some go back to their regular classes with a new sense of urgency. Others fail again.

Students in ninth grade fail more courses than students at any other high school level; about 15 percent to 20 percent have flunked at Glen Burnie, Horine estimates. Some are repeating the ninth grade.

Horine finds that many of these 14- and 15-year-olds are not ready for the freedom ninth-graders encounter in high school, for the responsibility of completing the work and bringing materials to class and getting there on time. Classes are longer here: 90 minutes compared with 50 or 55.

In addition, they're "insecure, unprepared, in emotional turmoil and just can't handle it," Horine says. "We're left picking up the pieces."

Parents have to sign up their children for courses, a step designed to get the former involved. Students must find transportation; sometimes that keeps them from enrolling. Or they might have to work to help support their families. There are many reasons why only 30 students are enrolled. The program could accommodate dozens more.

Daniel Stewart - another who failed government and biology - expects to see improvement on his next report card.

"I'm just a lazy kid ... ," the 15-year-old said. "I really do want to try harder."

He's doing well in French this semester but struggles in English. Daniel hopes he can stop the tailspin.

Will he graduate? "Not with flying colors," he conceded. "I want to go on to college, but I know I have to do better to get there."

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