01/11/10 — Dillard Academy receives dropout prevention grant

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Dillard Academy receives dropout prevention grant

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 11, 2010 1:46 PM

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News-Argus/BOBBY WILLIAMS Philip Racalbuto, right, Spanish teacher at Dillard Academy, teaches days of the week in Spanish to Kimberly Vaughn's kindergarten class this morning. The charter school, which started doing the daily lessons earlier this month, recently received a dropout prevention grant for $148,000.

The notion of a child going to college should not be a question mark but an exclamation point, says Brian Smith, principal of Dillard Academy, Wayne County's only charter school.

Every child deserves to have a future full of possibilities, he said.

But that is not always the case, whether in Wayne County or anywhere else in North Carolina. High school dropout rates have long come under fire, prompting the Legislature to create the Committee on Dropout Prevention in hopes of improving graduation rates.

The committee recently awarded $13 million in grants to 83 organizations across the state -- including schools, nonprofits and government entities -- to promote keeping students in school.

Among the recipients was Dillard Academy, which received $148,344.

Danielle Baptiste, auxiliary services coordinator at Dillard and the school's grant-writer, said that waiting until students reach high school to instill the message is likely too late.

"Dropout prevention generally goes for high school, but we're one of the few that targets the younger ones," she said. "The society the kids are growing up in does not necessarily support them graduating and going forward, so they have to have that ingrained in them from the time they're babies. ... We feel like doing it early is the best way to get that mindset so that they're coming to stand up against those odds from the beginning."

Planting the "seeds of success" early on is just one of the missions at the 12-year-old charter school for grades K-4, says Director Hilda Hicks. The school has worked to focus attention and resources on innovative programs and initiatives toward keeping students in school, she said.

"This is a continuation grant," she pointed out, building on a similar grant received by the school a year ago. All told, the additional grant will put into place more than three years' worth of programming.

Much of the effort will center around remediation, shoring up academics, providing transportation to those who need it, and enlisting more parental involvement.

The school has introduced several programs which have proven successful, including an after-school program and summer school, the latter particularly noteworthy since it was available at a time when the economy caused the Wayne public school system to cancel summer remediation classes.

Exposing children to the reality that college can be in their future has been especially beneficial, Ms. Baptiste said.

"We have done field trips to different universities and colleges, to show them what is beyond school,"she said. "We take third and fourth grades. Our big thing is early intervention because by the time they're in sixth grade, if they have ever been retained, they have a 50 percent higher chance of dropping out."

Educating youth today presents its own unique challenges, particularly in neighborhoods where parents may not have themselves finished high school, much less gone on to college, she said.

That's all the more reason to make the school an inviting and warm place, the educators say. Parental involvement is vital, but takes work to make it happen.

"If parents aren't feeling comfortable in school, we want to pull parents into fun activities, then incorporate information," said Ms. Baptiste.

And then there are issues of dealing with behavior problems among students -- disruptive students, problems with repeated suspensions, just to name a few.

"Every single day, we have strong discussions on character development, teaching them to make smart choices. We teach them that there are different ways of behaving at home, at school, in church, in various places," Mrs. Baptiste said.

The school's behavior specialist works closely with such students and stays in contact with their teachers. In the after-school group, Ms. Baptiste said, students are given the opportunity for peer discussion -- to "talk each other down" and work on solutions together.

The after-school program has not only served Dillard's students well, but has drawn response from at least four area feeder schools, she added.

"Any are welcome as long as they can arrange transportation," Ms. Hicks said.

Another area the educators incorporate into the academic program at the school is service. From the school's garden to the library, enlisting student participation by giving them a job to do breeds ownership and helps them feel a "sense of responsibility, of community," Ms. Baptiste said.

And ultimately, the idea is for all the seeds to take root so that by the time students reach high school, they will have their own vision for the future -- one that includes getting a diploma and continuing their education.

"Hopefully, what we're trying to do is give the kids self-esteem so that that vacuum that's sucking so many of our kids down and they're not graduating, they're strong enough to go on," said Ms. Baptiste.