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Bainbridge, Ga--For potential dropouts in this rural community, school officials are offering the academic version of a two-fer sale.

Developed by a teacher at Bainbridge High School, this dropout-prevention program offers students who are at least two years behind grade level a deal that
is hard to resist: Complete one academic year, and get the credit for two, and possibly three, grade levels.

Now in its third year, the school's Alternative Opportunity, or alt-o, program is credited with saving a couple dozen potential dropouts in this Georgia district.

"The kids that have come through this program have learned the value of being labor intensive," says Ronald E. Hinson, the school's principal. "They have learned that, if they have put in the time, they will get good things."

Richard Johnson, the teacher who created and directs the program, says alt-o is based on research that shows that students who are more than two years behind grade level are far more likely to drop out than their peers who remain on track.

To help them get back on schedule, Mr. Johnson takes students who are old enough to be high-school freshmen or sophomores, but who are languishing in the 7th or 8th grade, and places them in special academic classes in an annex adjacent to the high school.

In intensive classes with no more than 18 students, the overage pupils are taught good work habits and are rewarded for their efforts. If they pass their classes, they get credit for both the 7th and 8th grades. But if they pass special "performance ob6jectives" that are above and beyond their regular course requirements, they can get credit for the 9th grade as well.

"We're taking kids who are unmotivated and unproductive and making them more motivated and more productive," Mr. Johnson says. "We take them from 'can't do, won't do,' to 'can do, will do.'"

To students, however, the program's most important benefit is that it will let them graduate with their original classmates.

"I really like the program because I'm getting caught back up," says Dana Scott, an 8th-grade student who failed the 5th grade. "It makes you feel better to be with the group you started out with."

'Light at the End of the Tunnel'

This largely agricultural community in the extreme southwest corner of Georgia seems to be an unlikely site for education innovation. Although ranch-style houses and neat bungalows are common in town, mobile homes that have seen better days are scattered throughout the outlying area.

But statistics convinced school officials that they needed to do something about their dropout problem. Of the approximately 500 students who entered the countywide high school's freshman class in 1984, only about 300 graduated four years later, they found. To remedy this situation, the district's former superintendent lured Mr. Johnson, who ran a similar program in a northern Florida school, to Bainbridge.

To date, the program has been able to accommodate only a small percentage of the more than 80 overage students without learning disabilities who finish the 6th grade each year. Students who want to enter the program must be recommended by middle-school educators and must undergo an interview along with their parents.

What is most important, says Mr. Johnson, is evidence that students want to turn their lives around. Strong academic skills are not a precondition for entrance, he says, noting that most of the students in the program perform on reading and mathematics tests well below national norms.

Of the 18 students who were enrolled in alt-o during its first year, 1988-89, 15 are still in school. Of the 22 students in the program during 1989-90, 1 has dropped out but 5 others entered the 10th grade after graduating from alt-o. And all but 1 of the students now in school are doing "reasonably well," says Mr. Johnson, defining this as maintaining at least a C average and failing no more than one course.

This year, the program has been expanded to 3 teachers and 57 students. About a third of the students, Mr. Johnson says, will be eligible for the 10th grade at the end of the school year. And next year, the program will have more than 70 students and four teachers, he says.

Some graduates of the program, he says, are placed into the high school's alternative-education program for freshmen and sophomore students, which, like alt-o, has a low student-faculty ratio. Others are placed into middle- and lower-track regular classes.

To Mr. Johnson and the district's administration, the fact that so many potentially vulnerable students have stayed in school after completing the program is sufficient proof that it works.

"They can see the light at the end of the tunnel and see that they will graduate with their peers," Mr. Hinson says. "And at 15 years of age, what is most important to you is your peers."

Joyce L. Epstein, the co-director of the effective middle-grades program at the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students at Johns Hopkins University, calls alt-o and programs like it a good first step.

"Instead of calling them failures, you're calling them possibles," she says.

"It's a good theory," she says. "It's just down the line they have to follow it up with more detailed measures [of academic progress]."

Point System at the Heart

At the heart of the program is a grading system that allows students to know exactly where they stand at all times. During each six-week marking period, students can earn two points each day Monday through Thursday per academic subject for coming to class, properly taking notes, and completing their homework, or about 48 of the 75 points they need to pass a subject. Students keep grid charts and know what their grades are at any given moment.

On Fridays, they can earn up to five points in each class for passing open-notebook tests. Getting a good grade on these tests is a snap if they have precisely copied the information that the teachers have painstakingly laid out for them, Mr. Johnson says.

In between, the students complete larger assignments at their own pace for additional points. This could include writing a 25-page "novel'' about their life, summarizing scenes from Macbeth, or completing a composition outlining their reactions to a short story.

"You could have an iq of 75 and make 100 in my class," says Beth Coan, one of the program's teachers. "I think it's great, because it comes from hard work."

"These students have never made the connection between hard work and success," she adds.

Mr. Johnson acknowledges that "the point system is a way to grab their attention."

"A lot of people would say, 'Your grades don't mean the same as those given in the high school,"' he says. "But every science teacher's grades are a little bit different."

Outside of their five alt-o subject classes, the students take physical education and an elective in the main high-school building, where they have all the privileges of regular high-school students. This experience is important, school officials say, because it allows alt-o students to socialize with others their own age.

Besides earning these 9th-grade elective credits, students who master "performance objectives" in their alt-o classes can conceivably earn enough subject credits to bypass their freshman year. The objectives, which are established by the alt-o teachers and are accepted by the high school, are based on statewide curriculum guidelines.

In their social-studies class, for example, students could master some of the objectives they need by correctly answering a series of questions penned on a homemade set of cardboard cue cards in front of Ms. Coan.

On a recent visit to the class, students were attempting to get credit for questions relating to events since World War II. If they missed one card, they had to start all over again. And unfortunately for several students in the class, Nikita Khrushchev's name was impossible to remember or pronounce.

"I would not tell you that our classes are like those in the high school," Mr. Johnson says. "But our kids do as much as those in the high school."

Mr. Johnson says district officials were willing to count the one alt-o year as two academic years because overage middle-school students eventually receive administrative promotions to the high school. They felt it was better, he says, to reward students who were willing to work than to allow poor students to waste their time at the middle school and increase the likelihood that they would drop out.

Although the program is relatively new, it has received in-state accolades. The program has received an $80,000 grant from the state for computers and other materials, and Mr. Johnson is drafting curriculum guides that will allow other districts to train their teachers to replicate alt-o.

But to students in the program, it is the dedication of teachers, and not the specifics of the program, that is its major strength.

"They take more time to work with you," William Jones, an 8th-grade student, says.

"It's not push, shove, push, shove," Dexter Odom, also in the 8th grade, says. "You work at your own pace."

His friends enrolled in the traditional academic program, he says, have less work than alt-o students. "We have to write more than they do," he says.

"We get it in more detail than they do in normal classes," Lathan Cooper, a 7th-grade student, says.

David Ingle, a 7th-grade student who hopes to be in the 10th grade in September, credits alt-o with turning him around academically. "Last year, I told everyone that I would drop out when I was 16," he says.

"Both of my brothers dropped out of school," he says. "I've seen from their mistakes that I don't want to."

Although alt-o students say they are well-accepted by the other students at the high school, some note that there was the usual teasing by upperclassmen at the beginning of the school year.

"I told them, 'I never saw you skip two grades in one year,"' David says. "You've got to be pretty smart to do that."

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