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Gainesville Middle School "at-risk" students get chance at a better future
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“At-risk” middle school students are now the targets of a program developed with tactics to increase academic performance and high school graduation rates.

Gainesville Middle School has been selected by the Georgia Department of Education to participate in the GraduateFIRST Project.

The grant itself targets special education students, with the idea of increasing graduation rates of students with general education diplomas.

Criteria include attendance, academic performance and behavioral problems.

“(It targets students) hopefully early enough to get them the assistance that they need academically to be able to finish high school with a general education diploma,” said Jimmie Minor, Gainesville City Schools’ director of special education.

“The hope is identifying these students earlier, and being able to remediate as best we can,” she said.

Gainesville Middle actually began identifying these at-risk students last year, in a program it titled ‘30-4-30.’ Thirty students were identified using many of the same criteria as the GraduateFIRST project, and teachers worked with them to improve academic scores.

“What we’re doing is trying to connect these kids with not only adults in the building, but with students in the building, and helping them take ownership of the school,” said Gainesville Middle principal Ken Martin. “Basically, we’re all in this together, and we want to see everyone succeed.”

With the grant, Martin expects that around 50 kids will be targeted for this project, saying that they don’t want to follow too many students, and then be overwhelmed and unable to truly provide the needed support.

School officials believe that providing assistance to students before they reach high school only increases graduation rate success.

“By the time they get to high school, it’s almost a whirlwind from ninth grade to 12th grade,” Minor said.

She pointed out that research shows that students with disabilites who have more direct instruction in reading at the middle school level improve at a greater rate.

“In the past, I think what happened is we always assumed that kids learned to read and then poof, there’s this magic thing where they just continue to get better and better at it. Most students do. Some students don’t,” she said.

She said that the schools are working on identifying students even at the elementary school level.

“Probably one of the biggest factors would be the ability to read well, because if you can’t read well, then being able to keep up in class is going to be more difficult,” she said. “The more difficult, the further behind you get, the more frustrated you get, and eventually it leads to a student just giving up, basically.”

The program not only works to prevent a student from dropping out, but works to have special education and other identified at-risk students graduate with regular, general education diplomas.

“With the teachers involved, it’s having them just check up with (the students) on a weekly, maybe even on a daily basis to see how their classes are going,” Martin said. “The teachers also get texts or emails about updated grades, updated attendance, etc.

“The biggest thing is building that relationship between student and teacher,” he added.

Gainesville High School was part of the pilot program from 2008-2010.

“Really, the biggest thing it made us do was look at how we really dig into our data and our kids, and the root causes of their issues,” said Gainesville High assistant principal Bryson Worley.

He said that the main indicators ended up being attitude, behavior and curriculum.

Some of the solutions to address those problems used online learning, smaller class sizes and incentive programs.

Information from the state DOE says that there has been a 37 percent rise of graduation rates for students with disabilities in Georgia over the past four years.

The GraduateFIRST Project will take place over the next two school years at Gainesville Middle. The grant provides funding for a collaboration coach from the Georgia Learning Resource Center, training and support for central office personnel, school leadership teams and teachers to develop and implement action plans.

Data will be gathered. The middle school will collect data during the students’ time there. Once the student moves on to high school, the information will be transferred there.

The work is coordinated through the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University in South Carolina. Funding is distributed from the federal level through the individual state departments of education.

While an exact amount of the grant for Gainesville Middle was not available, Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer estimated it to be around $200,000, covering the stipends for professional training, and the salary of the collaboration coach.

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