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Grade 8.5 offers half a chance

The program helps students who don't make it into the ninth grade.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 22, 2007

Alexis Smith, 15, writes to her boyfriend during lunch at Lealman, where she is in the 8.5 program. She said she eats lunch alone so she can write in the journal the two of them trade off each week. The keeper of the journal does the writing, she said, and telling about the events of each week has improved their writing skills.
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]

It was quiet in Room 117 on Tuesday morning, a far cry from the buzz and chatter that usually mark the first day of a new school year.

A dozen students stared straight ahead, some with arms folded. All wore jeans, and most wore dark-colored T-shirts.

A teacher's question broke the silence.

"What do you know about 8.5?" Jean Maggi asked. "It's not eighth grade and it's not ninth grade. Does that have you concerned?"

Most of the students remained impassive. A couple shook their heads. One shrugged.

And so began what some are calling the next grand experiment in the Pinellas County School District: a plan for helping eighth-graders who are not quite ready for high school stay on track for graduation.

As the name implies, 8.5 is a hybrid. More intense than eighth grade, it won't be quite as daunting as ninth grade for about 100 students who otherwise would have been held back.

Course work will be delivered in bite-sized pieces on the campuses of Lealman and Clearwater intermediate schools, with lots of support from teachers, social workers and behavior specialists. Students will get intensive reading instruction, along with English, math and science.

If they do well, they'll move up to 10th grade at the end of the year. If they fail to make progress, they'll be ninth-graders next August.

Pinellas school officials say the program is unique, born from their desire to bridge the gap some kids encounter between middle school and high school.

"We had to find a different type of curriculum delivery so kids weren't reading the same books and doing the same things they did when they failed," said Harry Brown, the district's deputy superintendent for curriculum and operations. "Retaining children is like reworking a product on an assembly line. It's not the best way to go."

Education experts nationwide seem to agree. Patrick Montesano, vice president of the Washington-based Academy for Educational Development, calls initiatives like 8.5 "recuperative programs." Such programs challenge students rather than spoon-feeding the same material over and over in the hope kids eventually will grasp it, Montesano said.

Initiatives that attempt to give students more support "so they can wrap their minds and hearts around ninth grade" without sacrificing rigor are worth trying, he said.

Judging from the first day of 8.5 at Lealman Intermediate, the new program will provide the challenge Montesano and others say students need.

Maggi, who will teach English and personal development, surprised students by telling them they'll spend the first 10 minutes of each class period writing in a journal.

"Your life is a story, and you're a character in it," Maggi said. "We're going to make those connections as the semester goes on."

Then she gave them a short talk on postmodernism, using a children's book to illustrate the concept. The students listened closely and ventured tentative answers when she asked, "Would the world disappear if there was no language?"

They appeared relieved when it was time for lunch.

Over a ham sandwich in the cafeteria, Brad Harker, 15, said he had been looking forward to attending Gibbs High School this year, but wasn't surprised when he found out he was being held back. He admits that he didn't try very hard in eighth grade and that he skipped more days than he can count because he was bored.

He said he plans to turn himself around this year in 8.5.

"The good thing is that there will be smaller classes, so the teachers will be able to get around to everyone," he said. "I'll have more help if I need it."

Janet Butler, 15, sitting nearby, said she's not embarrassed at all to be in a program like 8.5, although most of her friends have moved on to Pinellas Park High.

"It's a very good thing," she said. "I know this is my last shot, so I'm going to try as hard as I can."

Alexis Smith, 15, said some of her friends in Hillsborough County wish the program was available there.

"This is a good thing," said Alexis, who missed a lot of school last year because she had to stay home to take care of her younger brother and sister. "I'm positive I can do this."

Briana Esposito, 14, was a little less enthusiastic. "It's a letdown not to be able to go to high school," she said.

But Briana's mother already is calling 8.5 a godsend.

"Without this program, she would go back to Tyrone Middle School, and she would fail again, Penny Esposito said. "She'd be 15 and still in the eighth grade."

Dee Burns, dropout prevention supervisor for the district, says 8.5 is simply a different way of teaching kids.

"Instead of saying to them, 'You failed eighth grade and you have to go back and do the same old thing,' the focus will be on, 'What do you need to do so you'll be a 10th-grader next year?' " Burns said.

That doesn't mean the 8.5 students will get a free ride.

"We're going to push them, and we're going to push them hard," Burns said. "But we have confidence they can do it, and we're going to help them get there."

Fast Facts:


The 8.5 program at Lealman and Clearwater intermediate schools is still accepting eighth-graders who were held back. Call (727) 588-6069 for information.

[Last modified August 21, 2007, 23:50:17]

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