In 2006, 2 percent of the high school students in the Garland Independent School district dropped out, a percentage that had been holding steady for several years but was still below the state average of 4 percent. One might expect that Garland school officials would be comfortable with the situation. That was not the case.
With over 3,100 of Garland's 16,300 high school students at least a year older than their grade level, school officials feared an upswing in those choosing to leave without a diploma, citing research that students who repeat grades have a higher tendency to drop out.
Each school was attempting to take care of its own dropout problem, but there was no cohesive plan to tackle it districtwide. "What we found is that each school was working against each other," says Gwyn Benton, co-lead teacher at the Garland Non-Traditional High School. "The idea was to do something to help everybody."
According to research, students' decision to drop out often has nothing to do with the difficulty of the curriculum, Garland officials say. In many instances, students are often frustrated and don't feel like their academic and emotional needs are being met. "They don't see any hope," says Connie Skipper, co-lead teacher at the school, a role she shares with Benton similar to that of a principal.
The best minds in Garland got together to determine the best way to halt the trend and created the Garland Non-Traditional High School in January 2007.
The remedy is deceptively simple. School officials recommend students, usually ages 16-21, who they feel might be best served through an alternative education program. These students then officially apply to the school. Upon acceptance, each student meets with a counselor to create an individualized learning plan. "We are looking for students with desire, the hope that they can graduate from high school. We look for commitment," Skipper says.
Using an Internet-based education program created by Apex Learning that allows them to work through their coursework independently, students recover credits and finish necessary requirements at their own pace, often times working from home in addition to the hours spent in school. With an average student-toteacher ratio of about 15 to 1, the individualized attention is invaluable.
The role of the teacher in this new model is vastly different from traditional practices. Rather than working as disseminators of information, Garland Non-Traditional High School teachers act as guides, helping students do their own research. "The students are in control. If they need to look at something a little more, they go back to it," Benton says.
The courses are created in a similar manner to the process used by textbook publishers, says Cheryl Vedoe, chief executive officer of Apex Learning. In-house development teams working in conjunction with subject matter experts work within national standards to create the scope and sequence of the courses. Each part of the digital curriculum has built-in assessment tools, both online and teacherdriven. "We are providing a best-of-breed experience for students, teachers and administrators," Vedoe says.
Graduation Every Week
Since the program went into effect, about 110 students per semester have enrolled and almost 40 have fulfilled their graduation requirement. Skipper says they are weighing adding additional sessions to accommodate more students.
The goal is never far from sight. Each week teens that might be considered reluctant students step forward and participate in a small yet meaningful ceremony, unique to the school, in which they sign a wall in the school when they complete a course. Skipper and Benton say the ceremony has become a routine that students anticipate. When students complete their entire course of study, they come to the school dressed in their caps and gowns.
Graduation, once thought of as an unattainable goal, is now a ubiquitous presence in students' lives. That is exactly how Skipper and Benton want it to be.
"We don't sprinkle pixie dust on them when they come through the door," Skipper says, "but we do have seasoned teachers who meet them where they are."
Steven Scarpa is a freelance writer based in Shelton, Conn.