Last-Chance High 

How a tiny educational program turns hundreds of failing Richmond seniors into graduates.

click to enlarge Michelle Kelly, 20, was homeless, pregnant and failing out of school when she came to the Performance Learning Center on Leigh Street earlier this year. Now she's preparing to graduate, get her own apartment and train as a certified nursing assistant. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Michelle Kelly, 20, was homeless, pregnant and failing out of school when she came to the Performance Learning Center on Leigh Street earlier this year. Now she's preparing to graduate, get her own apartment and train as a certified nursing assistant.

A public school you've never heard of graduated 191 seniors last year. Its graduation rate hit the high-90s, rivaling that of the city's specialty high schools.

A year earlier, all 191 of those students were failing out.

Why don't you know this nameless school? Because it isn't a school — at least not in the traditional sense. It's a collection of spare classrooms tucked inside three city-owned buildings. They're called Performance Learning Centers.

It's the most drastic intervention the school system offers. It's the last chance for youth whom everyone else has given up on. And it works.

Ke'Shawn Noble is a bubbly teenager who grew up in Gilpin Court. Though bright, she had a truancy problem — and it only got worse after she got pregnant her freshman year at Thomas Jefferson High School. Noble enrolled in the Capital City Program for underperforming students, but it only postponed the inevitable: In 12th grade, after struggling to find child care and recover from two surgeries, Noble dropped out.

Once, this might have been the end of the story. But Noble wanted a better life for her son, Kar'Sean. She had to graduate.

In October, Noble's guidance counselor referred her to the Performance Learning Center at the Adult Career Development Center on Leigh Street, which had on-site day care for Kar'Sean.

"It was nothing like regular school," Noble says. The halls of the 90-year-old building (formerly Armstrong High) were hushed. There was no daily drama to distract her. Noble showed up every day. "Cause I really don't have a reason to miss school," she says.

In eight months she raced through 14 credits (each class semester counts as one credit.) To graduate, she needed only nine. Two weeks ago she passed the Standards of Learning tests required for graduation. She's obtained one small college scholarship. And on June 13, Noble will receive her diploma at the Richmond Coliseum with the rest of her class at Thomas Jefferson.

Noble, 19, plans to attend J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College to become a physician's assistant, but learning center staff are nudging her toward a four-year college instead — perhaps St. Paul's College, a historically black institution in Lawrenceville that has a dorm for young parents.

Noble, who came so close to failing out, now considers college. "I'm ready to leave," she says. "As long as I have my baby."

click to enlarge History teacher Stephenia Muterspaugh works with small groups throughout the day while the rest of her students toil online. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • History teacher Stephenia Muterspaugh works with small groups throughout the day while the rest of her students toil online.

THE APPROXIMATELY 225 students enrolled in the city's three Performance Learning Centers are "the cream of the crop," jokes Harold Fitrer, president and chief executive of Communities in Schools of Richmond, the nonprofit that runs the program.

Most are 10 credits or more away from graduation. They're already too old for their grade level. And they're failing.

How did it come to this?

For many students, academic failure starts back in kindergarten. They arrive in school ill-prepared, and so are held back a year.

The next pitfall is third grade. "Because third grade is a magic year," Fitrer says. "It's the year you switch from learning to read to reading to learn." This transition is so crucial, he says, that many cities use third-grade reading scores to predict how many jail beds they'll need in the future. Last week Richmond announced a new plan to increase the number of Richmond third-graders reading at grade level, enlisting the help of preschools, nonprofits and public libraries.

Children who struggle with reading start failing other subjects and falling further behind. Dropout rates peak after ninth grade, when students frustrated by being held back feel like they don't belong in school anymore. "You're the oldest thing on the bus, other than the bus driver," Fitrer says.

The students at the Leigh Street Performance Learning Center all tell the same story, just in different words.

In high school they found certain subjects baffling — and teachers didn't have the time to coach them. "If I don't understand the work, I'm really not going to attempt to do it," says Carvelle Cotman, a 17-year-old with a brash smile.

Friends tempted them to skip school, misbehave, ignore their homework. "I couldn't keep track and focus because my friends were doing things," says Dale Harris, a slender, tattooed 20-year-old.

"All the drama start in school," Noble says. Then, it spreads. "It be round the 'hood," she says, laughing.

They failed class after class. They realized their friends were chattering about caps and gowns, while they stood no chance of walking across the stage. They were left with bleak choices: repeat the year as 19- or 20-year-olds, or drop out.

click to enlarge Despite failing 11th grade, 19-year-old Cornelius Curtis wouldn't give up. "I didn't want to get my GED," he says. "I wanted to get my diploma." He's graduating June 12. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Despite failing 11th grade, 19-year-old Cornelius Curtis wouldn't give up. "I didn't want to get my GED," he says. "I wanted to get my diploma." He's graduating June 12.

A slender thread pulled them back. For some, a caring counselor or teacher intervened. Some simply refused to abandon their cap-and-gown dreams. "I didn't want to get my GED. I wanted to get my diploma," says Cornelius Curtis, 19. Harris knew he needed to support his 2-year-old daughter. "Without a school diploma, you really can't do nothing in this world," he says. And, he adds, "I wanted to make my mama proud."

The Performance Learning Centers extend one final invitation. Come here, the staff says. Focus. In six to 18 months, Fitrer promises, "we can get you out of here."

The program doesn't accept students who lag too far behind. They must read and write at an eighth-grade level. And they must be recommended for the program by the principal or guidance counselor at their home high school. Most importantly, they must want to be there.

When new students enter the third-floor sanctuary at the Leigh Street center, the high-ceilinged halls are eerily quiet. Gone are the pushing, the chaos, the rowdy shouts from friends. It's strange. But it's freeing.

"I like coming here," Harris says.

"Who don't like coming here?" Noble shoots back.

Although many students have had run-ins with the law — one young man wears an ankle-monitoring bracelet — behavior isn't a big problem, Fitrer says. "They've been suspended plenty," he says, so administrators seek subtler ways to keep them on track.

Among new classmates, the pressure of maintaining your neighborhood persona is abruptly lifted. You don't have to impress your boys or your girls. You just have to graduate.

"I always had the potential of doing better," says Curtis, a quiet and serious young man. Just not at George Wythe, where he failed 11th grade. "I guess I had to act a certain way — not to fit in," he says, "but just to survive in that environment."

Curtis is graduating June 12 and heading to John Tyler Community College to be trained as a residential electrician. Last week he received the program's Paul Robeson Achievement Award for academic and personal growth in the face of adversity. As he accepted his certificate, his usually stoic face breaks into a smile.

click to enlarge Sherman Carroll, academic coordinator for the learning center at the Adult Career Development Center, gives Cornelius Curtis the program's Paul Robeson Achievement Award for academic and personal growth in the face of adversity. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Sherman Carroll, academic coordinator for the learning center at the Adult Career Development Center, gives Cornelius Curtis the program's Paul Robeson Achievement Award for academic and personal growth in the face of adversity.

COMMUNITIES IN SCHOOLS of Richmond, known as CIS, is an unusual organization. It's a private nonprofit, part of a national network, that works within the city and Henrico County school systems to meet the needs of low-income students. The organization runs programs such as a health center at George Wythe High School and a mentoring initiative at Carver Elementary School.

Five years ago the nonprofit turned its attention to the low graduation rates at some city high schools. Communities in Schools officials decided to start a special learning center for failing seniors based on a similar program in Georgia.

They selected teachers from the city's system who had outstanding records and experience working with alternative students. They found a few spare rooms in the city's technical education center.

In 2008, the first Performance Learning Center opened. With three today, Richmond has more than any other city, Fitrer says. They're in the Adult Career Development Center, Armstrong High School and the Richmond Technical Center.

The program's graduation rate is extraordinarily high, hovering between 95 and 98 percent. By comparison, Richmond's other high schools had 70.2 percent of their 2011 classes graduate on time. That's the fourth-lowest rate in the state.

click to enlarge At the Performance Learning Centers, there is no failure, says Harold Fitrer, president and chief executive of Communities in Schools of Richmond. "You just haven't succeeded yet." - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • At the Performance Learning Centers, there is no failure, says Harold Fitrer, president and chief executive of Communities in Schools of Richmond. "You just haven't succeeded yet."

The reason the learning centers work, Fitrer says, is the close partnership between Richmond Public Schools and Communities in Schools. The schools provide the space and the teachers. The nonprofit provides the extra staff and the money. CIS spends $225,000 per year to run all three centers.

If Fitrer had more funds, he says, he easily could fill two more centers in the city. For now the nonprofit is working with Henrico to open one for county students. "We wanted more of a focus on graduation and dropout recovery, to help students to graduate who weren't going to graduate," says Eric Jones, the county's executive director for secondary education.

The only difference in Henrico's program is that the center will be housed in a former storefront on Williamsburg Road, across from Montrose Elementary School. This might be more attractive to older students, Jones says: "It gets students away from a traditional school building, provides them with a different setting." He expects the center to enroll 75 students in its first year.

The model is simple: intensive instruction plus self-guided, online learning. At the center on Leigh Street there are just four classrooms: history, math, science and English.

The airy 1920s rooms are a curious mix of the antique — outdated globes, a shinless skeleton — and the modern. Banks of computers line the walls, where students spend a little more than half of the day slogging through the online curriculum with a program called NovaNet. The computer stints are punctuated by small-group sessions with the teacher.

Just like in a one-room schoolhouse, each teacher covers multiple grade levels and classes simultaneously. "I may have four sciences going on at the same time," says Patricia Sessions, a 10-year veteran of the Richmond Public Schools. She lets the students tell her what they need; some are happy working on the computer for hours, while others crave individual attention. Some like doing lab work online, while others opt for hands-on projects, such as a scrapbook detailing anatomical systems.

On a recent Thursday, history teacher Stephenia Muterspaugh guides three young women through some rapid review. The Standards of Learning exam is coming up, and her students need practice. They're trying to name the authors of famous quotes from American history.

"Of the people, by the people and for the people," Muterspaugh reads from her handwritten posters.

"It came from — I don't know, I forget," one student says.

Muterspaugh presses on through Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln to, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

"Something that had never been done before," she hints.

"Stepping on the moon," another student says.

"Yes," her teacher says. "Stepping on the moon."

click to enlarge Ke'Shawn Noble, who will graduate from high school June 13, stands with Elizabeth Muse, the program's services coordinator. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Ke'Shawn Noble, who will graduate from high school June 13, stands with Elizabeth Muse, the program's services coordinator.

That's how far away a diploma seems sometimes.

And the real problem rarely is the SOLs.

"I have never, ever met a kid who wanted to drop out of school," Fitrer says. They drop out because they get pregnant, or because they father children. Because they're hungry. Because they're homeless.

Many of the center's students come from families that have lived in poverty for five or six generations, Fitrer says. Several will be the first in their families to graduate from high school, let alone college.

Public high school teachers can't solve these problems. But the Performance Learning Centers try to.

Elizabeth Muse is the program's services coordinator. It's her job to find out exactly what's going on in students' lives and, she explains, to "take off the things on their plate that are keeping them from doing well."

She arranges day care, parenting classes and a clothes closet to outfit babies. She sets up classes with a financial planner who helps each student invest a gift of $500, which they can later withdraw for college or necessities. When students fail to show up for school, she goes to their houses to find out why.

In their short lives, some students have endured unimaginable chaos.

Michelle Kelly was born 20 years ago to a crack-addicted mother. She was raised by her grandmother in a house crowded with godchildren and a home day care. Then Kelly's grandmother died when she was 12. Kelly went to live with her older cousin, who already had a large family, in her uncle's house. Money was short; the house was condemned and the family scattered.

Kelly bounced between the homes of friends and ever more distant relatives, ending up with her cousin's girlfriend's sister. She struggled to make it to George Wythe High School each day, often missing first and second period. She found no sympathy from teachers, because "they really didn't know," she says. "I kept it to myself." She began thinking about dropping out.

That's when Kelly came to the Performance Learning Center on Leigh Street — just in time. Her welcome at home was wearing thin, and for the first time she had no plan B. In March, Muse helped Kelly find a room in a women's shelter. It wasn't the scary, dirty place she'd feared, she says: "It's pretty much like a home."

Through it all, Kelly kept her eye on her much-desired diploma. The only beast blocking her path was the algebra standards test. Her teacher stayed on her to practice, practice, practice. Kelly was convinced she would fail. Two weeks ago, she passed. She'll graduate from George Wythe High School on June 12.

Now, this soft-spoken 20-year-old with the scarlet braids faces a new, adult life. She's expecting a baby boy in July, and is on the waiting list for a two-bedroom apartment in public housing. "I'm a little scared," she acknowledges, "because I don't want to live by myself. I guess it comes with being grown."

But Kelly has a plan. Once her baby's born, she'll return to the big old school on Leigh Street, this time to take certified nursing assistant classes while her son goes to on-site day care. She'll work for a while and then enroll at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College to become a registered nurse. Maybe later, she'll enlist in the Navy. She isn't yet sure. But for the first time, she has options.

"I have a lot of different things I want to do," she says. S

Correction:An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Sherman Curl, academic coordinator for the Performance Learning Center.

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