December 27, 2006

Program Lets Drop-Outs Drop Back in, Graduate Alternatives Unlimited is Proving Successful.


At first glance, the students working at the long tables look like average high school kids. They wear baggie pants and T-shirts emblazoned with names of rock bands, and some have tongue piercings. Just like other high school students, they are working on algebra, current events and science.

The difference between these students and others is that these young adults dropped out of high school.

But thanks to Alternatives Unlimited, they now have a chance to finish and get a diploma.

Alternatives Unlimited, a 9-year-old for-profit company, opened six "Drop Back In" sites across Duval County this school year. It partners with urban and suburban school districts nationwide to give educational opportunities to students who've dropped out.

The Duval County sites, located on the Northside, Southside, Westside, Eastside and in Arlington, allow the students to "drop back in" to school and work at their own pace to finish the credits needed to obtain their diploma.

For some students, the arrangement is just what they needed.

Sean Simpkin, 20, left Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology when he was a 17-year-old sophomore.

"I didn't like how they taught," he said. "They just didn't seem to like me, and I know I didn't like them."

At the time, Simpkin's parents allowed him to quit school, but told him he would have to get a job. After working two years, Simpkin received an advertisement from Alternatives Unlimited and decided to give it a shot.

He plans to graduate in June, and tries to make it to the Murray Hill DBI Academy on Edgewood Avenue every day.

"This is my priority right now," he said.

There are no costs or tuition for students in the Drop Back In program. Under a contract with the Duval County School Board, it's funded through per-student state funding generated by the students in the program, with 95 percent of the money going to Alternatives Unlimited and 5 percent kept by the district.

The program is designed for students age 16-21, so even if it's been a couple of years since they quit, older students can go back to finish their high school education.

Simpkin's story is not unique. Some of the students quit school because they have children, jobs or other restrictions that make the traditional school day difficult, if not impossible. Right now, the DBI Academy has about 300 students across Jacksonville.

The DBI Academies use the same books as in Duval County public schools, follow the same calendar and help students prepare for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Essentially, all scholastic requirements for Duval County Schools are followed at the DBI schools. Students must meet the same credit requirements and must pass the FCAT.

At the DBI Academy, however, the students can work at their own pace and select the hours they want to attend, either a morning or afternoon schedule.

Ouida Warren, director of the Murray Hill DBI location, finds this type of arrangement invaluable.

"This program is absolutely fabulous," said Warren. "We don't ask questions. We don't care why they dropped out. We just want them to drop back in."

Although the DBI program just started in Jacksonville in September, the success rate for locations in other areas in the country has been promising, Warren said. "We have locations in Fort Lauderdale and Washington, D.C., where the success rate is 87 percent."

In addition to math, intensive reading and FCAT review, students get training in personal hygiene, goal-setting and preparing for a career. Their typical school day is comprised of 75 percent computer work and 25 percent direct instruction.

Students must also follow disciplinary rules and the code of conduct set by the Duval County schools.

"We have zero tolerance for guns, fighting or drugs," said Warren. "Students have to sign a contract saying they understand that. They know this is an alternative program and their last chance, and certain behaviors are not tolerated."

While the DBI Academies strive to provide a safe environment for students, they also find ways to work around other issues, like providing JTA bus tickets to students who have no other way of getting to the school.

Transportation to school was one of the problems facing 18-year- old Venise Catchings. She had to take public transportation to get to school, and was frequently late. Her tardiness were beginning to affect her grades at Andrew Jackson High School. As a result, she left during her senior year to attend the DBI Academy.

"I was having a hard time getting to school," said Catchings. "I rode the city bus and was late a lot."

Now Catchings is able to select a schedule that works for her, so tardiness is no longer an issue. She also has an infant daughter to take care of, so the flexible schedule helps her considerably. Catchings eventually wants to be a home designer. For now, though, she's trying to get through Algebra II. "I'm starting to actually like it," she said, smiling.

Teachers at the Murray Hill DBI Academy say they enjoy the alternative environment as much as the students.

Instructor Sherice Johnson said she looks forward to the time she spends with students.

"The best part of being here is working with the kids," she said. "All my students have my cell phone number and my home phone number. I communicate with their parents or their guardian. I just love the kids."

Johnson said students at the academy have a real desire to succeed, which makes her job more rewarding.

"Most of the students are here because they want to learn," she said. "They want to do better. Most of them know this is their last chance and they are actually striving to do it."

Simpkin, who is one of Johnson's students, found that one step is all it takes toward a more promising future.

He had advice for those considering dropping back in at a DBI Academy.

"Just ignore the fear and go for it,' he said. "You never know what's going to happen until you try."

For more information on the Drop Back In program through Alternatives Unlimited, visit COUNTY DROP BACK IN SITESNorthside DBISt. Matthew AME Church880 Melson Ave.388-9712Campus Park DBINew Bethel AME Church1231 Tyler St.791-9700Central DBIAcademy of Electrical Technology4951 Richard St.448-6180Arlington DBIUnited Methodist Church1400 University Blvd. N.744-3603Murray Hill DBIEdgewood Avenue Christian Church1041 Edgewood Ave. S.387-0132Eastside DBIGreater Payne AME Church1230 Claudia Spencer St.359-9790

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