Help at-risk students before they fall through the cracks; it's easier to turn them in a new direction than it is to pull them back into the system after they've fallen out.
That's the philosophy behind the Star Academy Program, and that's what officials at Berkeley County High School have done with the program for more than four years, earning the school a national award for dropout prevention.
The National Dropout Prevention Network presented to Berkeley Star Academy a 2012 Crystal Star Award of Excellence in Dropout Recovery, Intervention, and Prevention. The award was presented at the NDPN conference in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday, October 16. It's the third Crystal Star Award for a Star Academy Program in the past five years.
Dr. Kim McLaren, who served as Berkeley High School principal from 2007-2012 and currently is the district's director of secondary education, helped implement the Star Academy Program. From day one, the district was proactive in aiming to help overage middle school students -- many who were held back once or twice previously.
"We were looking for the child who's there one day, not really causing problems, but slowly disappearing off a school's radar and doesn't get picked up," McLaren said. A nontraditional, more-personalized program was needed to engage this hard-to-reach group of students -- and their families.
"A lot of them came from families where there weren't graduates," McLaren said. "We wanted to break that cycle and really work to change the whole family's focus on the importance of education. The Star program works with students, but it also works with parents."
Program effectiveness has been measured not only by percentage of students who accelerate from eighth to 10th grade (83 percent in the program's first four years) but also by the students who go on to graduate from high school.
Eighty-one percent of the first cohort of Star students received their diplomas last spring, which significantly surpassed the district's overall graduation rate. Even more impressive, according to McLaren, was that 17 members of that first group of 80 Star students went on to Berkeley Middle College High School for 10th grade and accumulated numerous college credits during the next three years.
"They not only earned a diploma, they graduated with several college credits under their belts. Some of them about had an associate's degree prior to earning a diploma," McLaren said. "We wanted to show that we could not only get them that diploma, but once they see the importance of education, they're capable of also going on and pushing through college as well."
In addition to algebra, biology, English, global studies, and a variety of elective courses, the Berkeley Star Academy teaches character development and communication every day and even involves parents, requiring them to attend monthly sessions. "They come in and learn how to better support and communicate with their teenagers," McLaren said.
Andrea Smith, a Berkeley Middle College High School graduate last spring, benefited from the personal attention and skill building she had received in the Star Academy Program a few years earlier.
"It was hard at first. I wasn't used to it," said Smith, who learned how to ask for help when she needed it. In the end, she discovered that "I can really do anything I put my mind to."
Instilling that confidence is the job of Star Academy teachers who are handpicked and who don't hesitate to work with students before or after school and even on Saturdays when students need to catch up on their work in the fast-paced courses that cover two years of work in just two semesters.
"Our teachers care about every single child, and they're going to make sure every child is successful," McLaren said. "These are highly qualified, absolutely dynamic teachers, many of whom have had lots of real-world experience prior to teaching so they can be positive role models as they help students set goals."
Learn more about Berkeley High School at www.berkeley.k12.sc.us. Learn more about the Star Academy Program at www.staracademyprogram.org. For more about the Crystal Star Award and the National Dropout Prevention Network, visit www.dropoutprevention.org/.