By Chris Kieffer / NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – When Martez Flakes would wake up in the morning last year, he was often upset.
“I didn’t want to come to school,” the 17-year-old said. “I just wanted to get it over with.”
Martez is now among 28 students enrolled this year in the Tupelo Public School District’s High School Advancement Academy.
The academy, which was created last summer, is for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students who are two years behind their peers academically.
By using a block schedule, concentrating on core subjects and enrolling students in online courses, the academy can allow those students to recover many credits within a single year and move up closer to their age peers.
It also places students in a unique academic environment where classes are smaller, meaning they get more personalized attention and have fewer distractions.
Flakes, for instance, said he is less likely to get into trouble at the HSAA, which is located inside the TPSD’s Frisco Park building, near the railroad tracks on South Green Street.
“I don’t have as many people to impress,” he said.
He also said he doesn’t mind going to school so much.
“This year it has been all right,” he said.
Although Tupelo High School students can earn only a maximum of seven credits in a school year, students at the advancement academy can receive at least 8.5, said Paul Moton, the academy’s director.
The students take classes in English, science, math and history. Because of the block schedule, they can complete those courses during a semester. They also can earn credits by taking A+ online classes during the school day. Some students also arrive before school or stay after school to complete online classes.
The students are classified as freshmen and are able to participate in Tupelo High School athletics and extracurricular activities.
Some of them will earn enough credits to become juniors next year. The rest will become sophomores. Most of them will return to the high school next year, although some have expressed an interest to stay.
The details on what the program will look like next year, and whether current students will be able to remain in it, have not yet been completed.
The program is a major component of the district’s dropout reduction efforts. Students who fall two years behind their peers academically are among the largest group of students who drop out of school.
Often they realize that they would have to remain in high school until they are 20 or 21 to graduate, become discouraged and leave. This program would accelerate their progress so they can still graduate with students their age.
Through the first semester of the school year, the program has not had one student drop out, despite working with a group of students that statistics say is likely to leave school early. The program has only lost two students this year, and both of them moved to other districts.
Of the 28 students enrolled in the program, 62 percent of them passed last year. During their first semester at the advancement academy, 100 percent of the students received passing grades.
Moton credits the program’s small class size for that statistic. Classes this semester vary between seven and 10 students.
“The difference is I think they know people care about them,” Moton said. “They know there is someone here they can talk to on a daily basis when they have a problem, and they feel comfortable. Kids don’t care until they know you care about them.”
The biggest challenge, Moton said, is overcoming the fear of students who have never had academic success.
Student Phontasia Holley, 17, said if it wasn’t for the academy, she may have just pursued her GED.
“My favorite part is that you can get to the right grade,” she said. “I’m ready to get out of school.”
Student Jwaan Hunter, 15, said he appreciates the teachers there.
“They help us with our work,” he said.
History teacher Antonio Magee is in his first year as a teacher after working as a police investigator. He said he loves the small class sizes. He said students seem comfortable participating in class.
“I try to relate to them,” he said. “I try to bring it to their level. We may compare a piece of history to music they’re listening to.”
Moton said he has had day-to-day discipline problems, but nothing significant. He said the academy’s environment helps students who may have had behavior issues at their previous school.
“Most of my kids, if they were not here, they would be big discipline problems wherever they are,” Moton said. “It is embarrassing when they are older than the other students. They had a reputation for causing trouble.
“Here they all have that one thing in common. This gives them an opportunity to get back to where they are supposed to be.”
Martez said that at the school, he no longer feels like he needs to “clown.”
“I can impress people in a bad way or a good way,” he said. “I can do it in a good way.”
After being a counselor at Tupelo High, Brandie Harris now serves as the counselor for both the High School Advancement Academy and the School-Aged Mothers program. She said she’s been most impressed by attitude changes she has seen in students.
Students have told her that they used to not want to come to school but that they do now. Others have said they used to be afraid of a certain subject, but after working with their teacher, they now believe they will be fine.
“Once you change students’ attitudes about school and their ability to be successful, you curb the dropout rate,” she said. “They want to come to school.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.