Program gives students head start on high school

Goal of weeklong course is to reduce dropout rate

Anne Arundel

August 18, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

A strange thing happened at Annapolis High School last week: Dozens of incoming freshmen showed up in the dwindling days of summer to take classes they passed in middle school.

The optional Cubs to Panthers program drew 70 students -- nearly a quarter of the incoming class -- for math, science, English and social studies classes, and activities designed to ease the transition to high school.

"At first, my mom made me come," said Howard Alexander, 14, from Bates Middle in Annapolis. "But after I came, I decided to come back. It was fun."

The weeklong program, in its first year, is an attempt by one Anne Arundel County school to help reduce the county's 4.4 percent high school dropout rate. County school officials also are alarmed by the dropout rate for African-American students: 5.9 percent. Both rates are higher than the state average -- 3.9 percent overall and 5.5 percent for blacks students.

Students drop out for many reasons, officials say. They feel isolated and don't see school as valuable to them, and that leads to academic and behavioral problems, said Diane Finch, Anne Arundel's guidance coordinator.

"All of our high schools are really focusing on support for the ninth-grade students because all the data shows that if ninth grade goes well, so does the rest of high school," Finch said.

For several years, all 12 county high schools have paired small groups of freshmen with upperclassmen on the first day of school, to give them a peer they can turn to for help, someone who serves as an alternative to teachers and counselors. Throughout the year, these peer mentors are available to freshmen in the guidance office or the cafeteria. They also help teach some freshman seminar classes.

"So many of the kids are lost in middle school, and they go to high school and it's very easy for them to become disenfranchised," said Eugene Whiting, who created the Cubs to Panthers program at Annapolis High to supplement the peer mentoring. The program is part of a federally funded effort to increase the college attendance rate for minorities.

Whiting wanted students to come to school for a couple of weeks before the first day so they feel at ease when classes start and know some teachers with whom they feel comfortable. Classes for freshmen start Aug. 27.

"It's ridiculous for students to take a whole marking period getting adjusted to high school," Whiting said. "A week isn't a lot, but it's enough to get their feet wet and make some friends."

`Important skills'

Although students take the core academic courses during the program, the classes are not intended to cover work they missed in middle school. In science class last week, for example, students conducted a lab to measure the sugar content of bubble gum and searched the Internet for photos of their favorite animal.

Before giving instructions to a class of 12 students, science teacher Neill Russell told them, "One of the most important skills in high school is listening, and I only teach students who listen."

The room grew quiet, and Russell explained how to transfer photos from the Internet to PowerPoint presentations. Computer screens quickly filled with pictures of pandas, dolphins, tigers, kittens and a few pit bulls.

Donelle Mayo, 14, was searching for leopards. He said the week at Annapolis High had helped him get to know the school and his classmates. And the science experiments introduced him to proper lab work.

"Most people won't know what to do" when school starts, he said. "But we will."

The atmosphere was casual last week. Russell, the science teacher, wore shorts. His 7-year-old nephew, Brendan, played GameBoy and got occasional help from the freshmen.

"A lot of people think we're crazy" to be here, Russell said. "But I really want these kids to have a good head start."

Expected to continue

The program was run through GEAR-UP (Getting Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a federally funded program at Annapolis Middle and Annapolis High schools that gives students mentoring, tutoring and preparation for college. The program has 90 middle school pupils, 30 in each of the three grades.

The Cubs to Panthers program enrolled the GEAR-UP students as well as any other freshmen who wanted to attend. An encouraging number did.

"They keep coming, and I won't turn them away," GEAR-UP director Yolanda Clark said last week.

She will assess the program during the next few weeks and expects to continue it next summer.

"We noticed that a large percentage of ninth-grade students fail their first semester, and often their first year, because they are just not used to high school work," Clark said. "This gives them a head start."

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