‘It’s definitely untraditional. But the traditional way has not worked for these kids.’
Javier Cortez had almost given up on his education. Having been held back twice, the 14-year-old felt like he’d never catch up with his peers.
But his outlook changed when he learned he’d been admitted to Jefferson Parish’s Star Academy.
Located at Marrero Middle on the west bank, and T.H. Harris Middle on the east bank, the “school within a school” features an accelerated, project-based curriculum, allowing students like Cortez to complete two years of schooling in one.
New to the Jefferson Parish school district, the program is geared toward 7th graders who were once on-track academically, but have fallen behind due to some personal adversity, like a death in the family. The program admitted 160 students this school year, split between the two campuses.
A product of the LaPlace-based nonprofit NOLA Education, the program seeks to lower high-school dropout rates by intervening in middle school.
School district data show that 80% of students who have dropped out of Jefferson Parish public schools since 2016 were two or more years behind, said Alisha Gilbert, the district liaison for the program.
“Historically, the more students we have that are overage is directly correlated to our high school dropout rate,” Gilbert said.
‘It’s definitely untraditional’
The program covers 7th and 8th grade coursework, preparing students to go straight to high school upon graduation. Class sizes are capped at 20 students, fewer than the 33 in a traditional classroom.
Much of the curriculum is taught through a computer-based platform with videos and texts that can be read aloud.
But it’s not just screen time. Many lessons center around hands-on projects.
Peering over a microscope in his science class at Marrero Middle, Cortez conferred with his partner to answer questions on a worksheet, following along with a computer lesson on plants and pollination.
At a station nearby, a pair of students plugged wires into an oscilloscope, while another poured chemicals into test tubes.
Marrero Middle principal Christina Conforto described the coursework as “a lot less ‘sit and get’ and a lot more ‘hands-on’.”
Circling the classroom, teacher La’Tonya Osborne checked on students’ progress, answering questions. Under the Star Academy model, teachers serve as “facilitators,” allowing students to engage in “productive struggle,” Gilbert said.
“It’s definitely untraditional,” Gilbert said. “But the traditional way has not worked for these kids.”
Braided into the curriculum is what Gilbert calls “social-emotional learning.” That includes teaching students how to respectfully disagree with one another, work together and appropriately argue a response.
When picking teachers for the program, Gilbert said they sought candidates with empathy.
In his social studies classroom, at the top of the white board, teacher Ralph Kidd wrote: “Be Brave! Believe in Yourself.”
“At the core, they’re really good kids, and they have a lot of potential,” he said, adding that many have faced “traumas” beyond their years.
Michele O’Steen, assistant principal at Marrero Middle, said students that are held back often “shut down” behaviorally, knowing that they’re behind and can’t catch up.
But grouped together at the Star Academy, many of those students for the first time “don’t feel ostracized” for being older, Gilbert said.
Khamari Bellamy, 15, spent much of last year getting in trouble. Now, he’s close to making the Honor Roll.
“Just ask my mom, I talk about school everyday,” he said.
Aderrian Badon, 14, credited the computer program for helping him to slow down and process the material
“Last year, I was rushing through the year,” Badon said. “Now, I don’t want it to be over.”
Working towards high school
Earlier this year, the students took a field trip to John Ehret High, to get a sense of what they’re working towards. College visits are also in the works.
“We constantly tell them, ‘you’re going to high school next year,’” Conforto said.
Jefferson Parish already sends students who fail 8th grade to high school as “transitional” students.
But of the 800 students advanced under that program in 2017-2018 school year, only 49% graduated in four years, Gilbert said.
“We’re taking care of half the problem. But what about the other half?” she asked. The answer, she hopes, is the Star Academy.
The program is funded for at least the next three years, thanks to a combination of federal pandemic aid and a $720,000 grant from the state Department of Education.
For students like Cortez, the program has been a godsend.
“It’s been a really good year so far,” he said. “Now that I’m here, I feel I’m able to focus much better.”
Written By: Blake Paterson, Staff Writer, NOLA.com
Released: Nov 27, 2022 – 10:26AM