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New school hopes to deflate dropout rate

"This is not a disciplinary high school," one school official says. "Our aim here is to graduate students."

By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published May 30, 2004

Two months from the start of the 2004-05 school year, more than 100 students have expressed an interest in attending the county's first long-term alternative high school.

Bayside High, which will eventually serve 500 ninth- through 12th-graders who are at risk of dropping out, will open in August in the former Dunedin Highland Middle School at 70 Patricia Ave.

If construction stays on schedule, the students will move into a new 90,000-square-foot building at 4730 145th Ave. N in Clearwater in October.

The school will serve students who are behind in credits as a result of excessive truancy and who are overage for their grade level, as well as those making the transition from secondary discipline schools. Students may or may not have discipline problems in addition to their academic challenges.

A small number of students who currently are attending juvenile justice programs and are not ready to go back to their regular high schools will attend Bayside, but the school is by no means a "jail school," said director of school operations Nancy Zambito.

"This is not a disciplinary high school," she said. "Our aim here is to graduate students. It's not to hold them, and it's not to punish them. This is going to be a high school where youngsters can go who have not been successful in our bigger high schools."

Students interested in Bayside High must apply for admission.

Those who have not made progress in other types of dropout prevention programs are given priority, Zambito said. They must make a one-year commitment to the school but have the option of staying four years. Block scheduling will give them the chance to earn more credits than they would in most traditional settings so they can make up missed classes.

The school's back-to-basics approach will place an emphasis on academics. There will be extracurricular activities but no sports.

Smaller classes of no more than 22 students will provide more individual attention. A strictly enforced dress code - no backpacks, no logos on clothing, no open-toed shoes - will cut down on distractions. And an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum that will answer students' most frequently asked question, "Why do I need to learn this?" will pique kids' interest in school, Bayside principal Phil Wirth said.

"Sometimes kids give up because they feel as if they don't fit in," Wirth said. "We want to change that. We want to change their view and have them value their education."

Linda Canterbury is optimistic that her 15-year-old son Morgan, who failed ninth grade at Dunedin High School, will make a turnaround at Bayside. Canterbury attended a parent forum Thursday night to learn more about the school. She left feeling hopeful.

"Morgan is a good kid," she said. "He's not a problem child, but his attendance fell toward the end of the year. He knew he was failing and his self-esteem suffered. He just needs some extra help."

The Pinellas district has considered for years the idea of an alternative high school that could increase the odds for students at risk of dropping out. Former superintendent Scott Rose listed the creation of such a school among his goals back in 1989.

The School Board approved the concept in 1997. Board members chose a site at 145th Avenue and 49th Street N, but questions arose about the site's environmental soundness.

The board selected another site, but controversy erupted among residents who objected to building the school in their neighborhood.

A year later, the Department of Environmental Protection said the school could be built on the original site. Voters approved a referendum in November 2002 that allowed the School Board to lease and eventually buy the land. Contractors broke ground last fall on the $15-million project, which is being funded with Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue.

But, meanwhile, the dropout rate among high school students has continued to rise. Newly released figures indicate that this year's graduating class lost 30 percent of its members since they entered ninth grade four years ago.

Some schools have higher dropout rates. Gibbs High School, for example, lost 47 percent of its ninth-graders and Pinellas Park High lost 46 percent.

Natalie Keys, who has been a teacher for 17 years and worked most recently with Wirth at Safety Harbor Secondary School, thinks Bayside will be a perfect fit for students who otherwise might not make it to graduation.

"We're going to have a fantastic program that will try to fill in the gaps missing in the regular school system," she said. "I think parents of students who are considering giving up on completing their education need to take a look at this program to see if it might meet their needs."

TO LEARN MORE

Bayside High is taking applications for the 2004-05 school year. Call principal Phil Wirth, 298-3425, for information.

[Last modified May 29, 2004, 18:47:14]


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