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The lift students need

A dropout prevention program for fourth- and fifth-graders gives them multifaceted support and a better shot at success.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 15, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Reeling from a divorce after 18 years of marriage, Carol Rhodes didn't know the extent of her 9-year-old son's problems.

She attributed Shane's poor grades, lack of motivation and quick temper to the family turmoil. She was stunned when his fourth-grade teacher at Rawlings Elementary referred him to a dropout prevention program.

For Shane, the referral brought relief.

"I felt like I couldn't do anything and that I wasn't smart," Shane said. "I felt like I wasn't anybody. Someone would make fun of me and I would hold all that stress inside and I wouldn't be able to sleep at night and I'd get headaches."

A year later, Shane is preparing to graduate from the Alpha dropout prevention program. His grades have improved from C's and D's to A's and B's. The headaches are gone and he looks forward to going to school.

"It's been a 100 percent turnaround," Rhodes said. "It's wonderful to see Shane come home with a big smile on his face."

Shane is one of 60 children in Alpha, a nationwide program for academically capable fourth- and fifth-graders who are struggling in school. Housed at Blanton Elementary, the one-year program came to Pinellas County in 1979 and is a partnership of Pinellas County schools, Operation PAR, the Juvenile Welfare Board and the Department of Children and Families.

Many parents, such as Rhodes, are surprised to learn their young children need a dropout prevention program, but fourth- and fifth-graders are at a critical age, said Dee Burns, dropout prevention administrator for the school district.

"They're really starting that march toward becoming an adolescent," she said. "If there isn't support for kids who need it, if you don't have a rung for them, they're probably not going to move up. They're probably going to begin sliding back down the ladder."

Teachers at six other elementary schools within 3 miles of Blanton -- Clearview, Cross Bayou, Pinellas Park, Rawlings, 74th Street and Skyview -- can refer children to Alpha if they are working below grade level, if they have been retained or have excessive absences, or if they have low scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and Pinellas Instructional Assessment Plan. The children often have other problems, such as shyness or difficulty making friends, which sometimes stem from problems at home, Alpha administrator Lorraine Bigelow said.

"Whether it's a lack of self-esteem or a lack of motivation, they're having some pain in their hearts," she said. "In some cases, they've never been taught. In some cases, their parents don't have the time to help them."

Alpha's goal, Bigelow said, is to encourage children to succeed academically and personally. Before-school tutoring and a small teacher-pupil ratio -- one instructor and one paraprofessional for each class of 20 students -- catch them up academically. Four onsite Operation PAR counselors help them with emotional issues. The counselors also are available to the children's parents, making home visits and referring them to social service agencies.

The counseling aspect is what sets Alpha apart from other elementary dropout prevention programs, Bigelow said. Each child is assigned a counselor for the year, with whom he or she meets individually at least once a week. In group sessions, students and counselors work on empathy training, impulse control and stress management techniques such as deep breathing.

"At first they giggle and don't take it seriously," said counselor Lori Vitale. "About midyear it starts to make sense to them. They begin to enjoy it. They come to school and say they've been practicing the techniques at home."

Positive reinforcement is a key element of Alpha. The teachers and paraprofessionals constantly look for ways to praise the children, awarding certificates and treats for work well done. The staff also encourages the children to praise each other at weekly class meetings where they compliment each other on their progress.

Equally important, said teacher Cristi Tracy, is parental involvement. She sends a daily report home with each student and encourages the parent or guardian to respond, especially if there is an issue in the home that is affecting the student's performance.

After a year in the program, the students are nearly always ready to return to their zoned schools for fifth grade or to go on to middle school, Bigelow said. To make sure none of them falls back academically or socially, the Alpha staff follows them for another year, visiting them at their schools and keeping in touch with their teachers. If they run into problems, she said, staff members ask them, "What did you do at Alpha that equaled success? What can we do now to help you be successful here?"

Bigelow admits that the small class environment, emotional counseling and follow-up care are expensive, costing about $5,000 per child. The school district contributes $3,100 per student, which covers academic instruction and bus transportation. Operation PAR provides the counselors and contributes to administrative staff salaries, and the Juvenile Welfare Board and Department of Children and Families help offset additional costs such as field trips and supplies.

Pointing to a five-year study by Johns Hopkins University's Department of Public Health and Pinellas County Schools, she said the results seem to justify the expense. The study showed that students who completed the Alpha program had fewer incidents of violence, absenteeism, failing grades and alcohol and drug use before high school graduation than similar students who did not participate.

But for Bigelow, the program's real success is measured by parents such as Carol Rhodes who thank her for helping to turn their children's lives around. With his feet back on the ground academically and with a renewed self-confidence, Shane is ready for Pinellas Park Middle School.

"It just reaffirms that what we're doing is the right thing for children and that we're making a difference," Bigelow said. "That's our reward, when we see the kids are out there doing well."

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