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Programs eliminate dropout risk early

Alpha and its extension, Summer Bridge, recognize troubled kids early — as young as Grade 3 — so they get back on track and don’t fall through the cracks.

By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published June 25, 2006


KENNETH CITY — Diandra Dorsey was having a tough day.First, some of her school supplies vanished. Then one of her classmates said her nose was too big. Another girl said her pants looked like pajamas.

Her first thought was to lash out with her tongue — or her fists. Instead, she walked away.

“I’ve learned that some people want to be the center of attention,” Diandra said. “Others just want to get through the day without a problem.”

The 10-year-old adjusted her attitude last year in the Alpha dropout prevention program at Blanton Elementary School. The national program, based at the school since 1979, helps children who struggle academically and emotionally.

Now, midway through a six-week program for Alpha graduates called Summer Bridge, Diandra is continuing to tame her anger while honing her reading, writing and math skills.

Program director Simone Steele described Summer Bridge as a loosely structured mix of play and academics. Children are encouraged to read what interests them, Steele said. They play educational computer games in the media center and go on weekly field trips. Teachers take roll, but attendance is not mandatory.

The most important thing, Steele said, is for the 33 students to maintain their hard-earned gains and stay on track until school starts again.

“Summer Bridge reinforces the skills they learned during the year,” she said. “But it’s more enjoyable because there’s no pressure.”

***

Dee Burns, dropout prevention supervisor for the Pinellas County School District, said many people are surprised when they learn that a dropout prevention program exists for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. But without early intervention, some children can fall through the cracks, Burns said.

“It’s like taking a child to the doctor,” she said. “You want to get them there early. If you see kids with symptoms, you can’t say, 'Maybe it will get better later.’ ”

Both Alpha and Summer Bridge are partnerships between the school district and Operation PAR, in cooperation with the Juvenile Welfare Board, Burns said. Children get one-on-one attention from teachers so they can catch up to their peers.

Operation PAR counselors help them with emotional issues, and the Juvenile Welfare Board provides resources for field trips to museums and other cultural sites.

A five-year study by Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Public Health showed that students who complete the Alpha program have fewer incidents of violence, absenteeism, failing grades and alcohol and drug use than those who don’t.

In the Pinellas program, the 50 to 60 children who participate each year are almost always ready to go back to their school of origin or proceed to middle school, Burns said. She thinks Summer Bridge contributes to their success.

“We’re trying to fill in the gaps,” she said. “We also want them to have some fun, to have meaningful activities where they’re learning things.”

***

Like Diandra, many of the Alpha children have problems with anger. Others suffer from low self-esteem. Nearly all are academically below grade level, have excessive absences and get low scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test when their teachers at nine feeder schools refer them to the program.


And while most of them show improvement, some continue to struggle. That’s why Becky Rooney, a Blanton teacher who is working this year with Summer Bridge, tries to weave in as much fun as possible.

Rooney uses a hopscotch game to teach math. She uses charades to encourage quick thinking, and she gives writing prompts to jump-start creativity.

Last week, she handed each child a drawing of what appeared to be a three-headed creature.

“Where does the creature live?” she said. “What does it eat? Is it friendly or fierce?”

Ambraesha Randle, who attended four schools before coming to Blanton last year as a third-grader, decided the creature was a combination unicorn, lion, dragon and goat. A wizard put a spell on the animals because they were arguing, the 11-year-old wrote. To break the spell, the animals would have to make up and be friends.

Meredith Killingsworth, a shy 11-year-old, described the creature as a three-headed lion.

“It was very lonely and had no friends until a little girl heard it sobbing and befriended it,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Diandra wrote that the creature was only pretending to be ferocious because it liked the respect that it got from people who were afraid of it.

“I think some people tend to misjudge these kids,” Rooney said. “They haven’t been exposed to opportunities like other kids, but they’re filled with promise.”

Louis Randle, Ambraesha’s father, said he has seen big changes in his daughter since she entered Alpha after repeating second grade. Ambraesha struggled for several years after he and her mother broke up, Randle said, but she’s on track now for fourth grade.

Sharon Williams, whose son Dijon completed fifth grade in the Alpha program last year, also sees positive results. Dijon was “getting all F’s” in fourth grade but has improved at least a letter grade in all of his subjects, Williams said.

“He still has some issues,” she said. “He slams doors. But he’s controlling his temper a lot better.”

Rooney said such turnarounds are possible because Alpha and Summer Bridge make the children feel safe and supported.

“They know as soon as they walk in the door that everyone here wants them to succeed,” she said. “We’re giving them what they need to make it in the world.”