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LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. – Instead of touting the innovative curriculum designed to engage at-risk students or the effective tools for improving student-parent-teacher communication, officials in Gwinnett County, Georgia, talk in simple terms about their desire to break bad habits and instill good ones in the 80 students enrolled in the STEP Program, another name for the Star Academy being piloted at Sweetwater Middle School in 2011-12.
The Star Academy from Pitsco Education is an award-winning program for dropout prevention that helps overage eighth graders catch up to their peers through accelerated core academic content that enables them to pass enough courses and earn enough credits to advance to 10th grade by the program’s conclusion.
Sweetwater Principal Georgann Eaton says she and other Gwinnett County Public Schools officials believe the program can help students who are at risk of dropping out develop new and better habits. Many students who have been held back one or more years for various reasons share a tendency to give up when schoolwork becomes difficult. The Star Academy’s design aims to reverse that trend through hands-on content and innovative approaches.
“Students who have gotten into a cycle of avoidance have to be retaught into a cycle of success,” said Eaton. “In this setting (STEP Program), we’re extinguishing that behavior. When the work becomes difficult, here are some extraordinary technical and physical items you can use and learn from, and mastery teaching allows you to continue. We focus on the work at hand and find alternative ways to approach the work. We literally break the cycle of avoidance and recreate a cycle of success.”
The student-centered curriculum in math, science, and English language arts employs cooperative learning that frees the teacher to provide support to individual students who require further explanation or support.
“The program actually speaks to the student and guides the student,” Eaton said. “The student can be reinstructed, and then the teacher is there as well to provide the one-on-one support needed to go into further depth and further explanation.”
She added, “Students work individually, in pairs, and in small groups. This skill of
working in groups is critical to success. With students, especially at middle school age, peer support and peer relationships are almost as important as their home relationships.”
This particular group of students also needs to see positive results before they are willing to advance deeply into a program. “It’s hard for students in that cycle of avoidance to see four years down the road and not feel immediate success,” Eaton explained. “This program gives them the opportunity for an immediate gratification in return for what they’re doing that will spur them to move forward and stay with it.”
Students in the STEP Program who are successful will complete their eighth-grade requirements by the end of the first semester and earn up to seven Carnegie units during the second semester. Then, the local high school and nearby Gwinnett Technical College are in place to keep students on a path toward a career.
“The goal is to have them advance through Gwinnett Tech with hopefully two years of work behind them by the time they graduate from high school,” Eaton said.
Learn more about the STEP Program at Sweetwater Middle School and Gwinnett County Public Schools at www.gwinnett.k12.ga.us. Learn more about the Star Academy Program.