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D.C., Museum To Open School for At-Risk Youths

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In what is described as the first such collaboration of its kind, the District of Columbia public schools and a local children's museum have announced plans to open a school for 7th-grade students who are thought to be at risk for dropping out.

The Options School, scheduled to open next fall at the Capital Children's Museum, will provide a short-term, intensive intervention program for about 100 pupils from throughout the district. Students, who will be referred by their principals, must be performing at least two grade levels behind, and must be eligible for the subsidized lunch program.

The school will be run by the National Learning Center, the private institute that founded the museum. It will have a strong emphasis on academics and drug education, said Louise Wiener, a museum spokesman.

Drawing on the museum's facilities, it will also offer small classes in photography, animation, radio and television production, and creative uses of computers, she added.

Students will also be trained to work in the museum to learn job responsibility, gain work experience, and improve their presentation skills, she said.

Approximately 100 students who have been in a pilot program at the museum since February have shown great improvement, she added.

The students in the trial group had "rampant" truancy records, she said, some missing as many as 117 days of school a year.

While in the program, however, 86 percent of the students attended school 80 percent of the time. Thirty-seven percent had two or fewer absences, and 25 percent had perfect attendance.

They also were performing two or more grade levels behind in math and reading, Ms. Wiener said. But after a semester at the school, 65 percent progressed two grade levels in reading and math on the Test of Adult Basic Education; 15 percent progressed at least one grade level.

The district will underwrite the cost of the program, estimated at approximately $3,000 per student, according to the spokesman.

The learning center has operated an adult-education program for 18- to 24-year-olds for the past five years. But Ann Lewin, president of the center, said concern about the nation's growing dropout rate inspired her to attempt a similar basic-skills training program to reach younger students before they drop out of school.

Most students will stay in the program for up to a year.

Center officials plan to evaluate the project to determine whether its approach could be applied districtwide, or if it should be continued as an alternative program.--lj

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