Second Chance Before Heading to High School

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Jo'Vanna Johnson entered Long Beach Preparatory Academy in the same boat as everyone else.

She had failed two classes in 8th grade. She had been skipping classes because she didn't get along with her teachers. And most of all, she didn't want to be here at the school district's experimental alternative to promoting students who are not ready for high school.

But the experiment worked for the 15-year-old. Ms. Johnson made A's during her year here and will enter a competitive, "high achiever" program at a regular district high school as a 9th grader this fall.

"I applied myself here," she said recently, attributing much of her improvement to her relationship with her teachers. "They teach us not just about school, but about life."

Whether the school, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, will succeed at its singular mission of passing students on to the 9th grade is still open for debate in many circles.

Following the 1996-97 school year, roughly 8 percent of the district's 8th graders were assigned to Long Beach Preparatory Academy after failing. Students who failed 8th grade could not continue on to a district high school, nor were they allowed to repeat the grade in a middle school.

As the school's first year ended in June, 275 students graduated and will go on to high school. Twenty students did not graduate and will move to alternative schools in the district as 8th graders.

About 50 students were assigned to other alternative schools in the district shortly after the beginning of the 1997-98 year, and roughly the same number were pulled out by parents who didn't agree with the district's new no-promotion policy. Parents had to either send those students to private schools or schools outside the district.

School leaders say that despite a variety of first-year obstacles--primarily staff turnover--the program is in better shape to serve the next batch of students this fall. Eight of the school's 21 teachers left during the first year.

"Students who come here are going to get a vastly different educational experience than they would get in any other middle school," said Principal Miguel Lopes, who came to the 89,000-student Long Beach Unified School District to run the new school after heading a night high school program in Boston.

Building Relationships

Made entirely of modular classroom buildings--what Mr. Lopes calls a bungalow-style school--and fenced off from a busy street, Long Beach Preparatory Academy certainly is not the most warm and inviting place.

Mr. Lopes admits that the way the school looks probably gave community members the impression that they needed to be protected from the students. And indeed, residents of Signal Hill complained about the school before it opened last fall, branding these students who had failed 8th grade as troublemakers.

Once inside the classrooms or out in the center courtyard where students eat their lunches at picnic tables, a visitor gets a different impression. Between and sometimes during classes, students pull teachers or administrators aside to discuss assignments or personal matters; they sit in quiet corners to talk.

"Kids need relationships. They need 10 people they know they can trust," said Toni Issa-Lahera, the school's assistant principal.

Instead of playing the traditional role of a disciplinarian, Ms. Issa-Lahera said, she focuses more on curriculum and staff development.

'Ultimate Accountability'

Part of a districtwide 8th grade initiative, the Long Beach Prep program, school officials say, is having an effect on other middle schoolers in the district, as well as in neighboring school systems.

Middle schools are beginning to use a range of strategies to keep students on track for the 9th grade, such as offering more parent conferences and special courses for those at risk of failing.

In fact, district administrators hope their efforts work well enough that the academy won't be needed after the 2001-02 school year.

But simply encouraging other students to buckle down doesn't do anything for the students who had no choice but to spend a second year of 8th grade at Long Beach Prep.

And it's true that critics, including many parents, said that the district shouldn't single out these students for a special program because it would just further hurt their chances of succeeding.

But others say the argument about self-esteem doesn't hold up.

"The district is trying to send a message to schools and to families that you can't just pass these kids on," said M. Hayes Mizell, the director of the program for student achievement at the New York City-based Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which has provided grants to the Long Beach district since 1995 to support middle school improvement. "There is this kind of ultimate accountability."

Long Beach Prep had to be more than just a repeat of the 8th grade. Classes are small--no more than 20 students per teacher. It's the only middle school in the district with a full-time school psychologist and social worker.

The curriculum focuses on the basics, and students have to complete an end-of-the-year project.

Ms. Issa-Lahera would like to add service-learning projects and give students more responsibilities around the school. "I want to have students do things that we know they've never had the chance to do," she said.

A Rough Start

The school got off to a shaky start: Internal troubles arose when several teachers--faced with students who were angry or embarrassed to be at Long Beach Prep--left the school. Many staff members were also new, either to teaching or to the district, Mr. Lopes said.

The initial turnover meant students weren't getting the help they needed, even though the smaller class sizes were designed to give them better access to teachers than they had in their previous middle schools.

"You need to like the kids, but it doesn't mean you can't put your foot down," said Heather Manger, a history teacher at the school.

Now that the first year is over, other district teachers are showing more interest in working at the school, Mr. Lopes said.

And a few other interesting things have happened.

Parents whose children were not doing well in regular 8th grade classes have asked Mr. Lopes if the youngsters can attend Long Beach Prep.

And as graduation approached in June, many of the students said they didn't want to leave, even though they had earned the right to go to high school.

"This school kind of got me in check," said Chris Rubio, who says he has vowed to stay away from drugs and gangs, even though his close friends are involved. "I've got too many people to help me."

Vol. 17, Issue 43, Page 7

Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as Second Chance Before Heading to High School
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