A program, which will be in its second year at Webster County High School as students return to class this week, is proving that for some young people, the traditional education model just isn't cutting it any longer.
The the Personalized Learning Center (PLC) started as a personalized approach to dropout prevention, but morphed in to much more. By the end of the 2018-2019 school year, it had grown to include not just students who had dropped out, but students who were in danger of dropping out or failing, students who had trouble in regular classrooms due to emotional issues and students who were on the fast track to college graduation.
Aaron Harrell, Webster County Schools' Director of Personnel and Secondary Education, started PLC last year while he was still principal at WCHS. He told the board on Monday that he had been looking at the district's yearly graduation rates when it dawned on him that something different needed to be done.
"It was reactionary by me," he said. "The number of kids going to home school, dropping out ... it just wasn't going well for us. We were meeting the state requirements, but we should have all of our students graduating from high school."
Harrell, who made his report on PLC to the school board as part of the capstone process required to complete his superintendent's certification, told board members that there had been a number of students who had not graduated with their class in May of 2018.
"We had stopped summer school because all you had to do was come to school for two
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weeks during the summer and magically you were a high school graduate," he said. "What that did, however, was just force students into adult education if they wanted a finish high school. Most of them say they are going to go to adult education, but I know those kids. They aren't going to."
PLC launched in the fall of 2018 by allowing eight students who had not graduated the previous may to return to school. Rather than returning to the regular classroom with students a year younger than themselves, these students attended a special classroom reserved for PLC. Rather than desks, the room includes couches and rolling chairs.
Harrell recruited Mattea Meadows, a former Webster County seventh grade teacher who had taken some time off to be a stay at home mom, to oversee the classroom.
"On the first day of class, I categorized each of the students in my head," Meadows said. "I quickly learned that I had a lot of different individual students. I stopped trying to tell them what they were going to do and started listening to them."
Meadows explained that the needs of her students were often the stumbling blocks that interfered with them completing school. She explained that some kids came in already feeling defeated, some came in wearing a work uniform from their third shift job and others came in determined to graduate. Each and every student in the group was different. Each one needed something different.
She said that one teen mom was worried because she needed clothes for her baby and couldn't afford them. Another student was in desperate need of a job. A third had a car, but had no idea how to buy car insurance.
"I started listening to what they needed, and then they started showing up ready to work," Meadows said. "I found that I couldn't just pretend to believe in these kids. They actually needed me to believe in them."
Before the end of the semester, all eight students in the PLC program had not only graduated, but they had done it by completing all of the work, an issue that Harrell stressed.
"I feel good about this because I know that in that room, they are all being held accountable to the same standards," he said. "They have to do the work. We aren't just going to give them the credits for showing up."
With the success of PLC's first eight students as a shining example of how the program could work, Harrell and Meadows set out to keep that success going. Working with the high school's teachers and administrators, they identified other students who were at risk of not graduating on time or of dropping out.
They also brought in students on the opposite end of the spectrum, those who were working on early college programs and dual credit programs.
"When we started, we were told you couldn't put that group of students in one classroom and succeed," Harrell said. "We did."
In all, 12 students in the PLC either completed the diploma they had missed from the year before, or managed to graduate on time in May. Five others graduated with both a high school diploma and an Associate's Degree from Henderson Community College.
For the upcoming school year, only one student who was supposed to graduate in May is having to return. PLC will also have 17 dual credit or early college students, three students at risk of dropping out and three students who were struggling in a traditional classroom setting.
While there are currently no plans to take the program school-wide, the district does continue to utilize PLC to fill the needs of students who need more than what they can get in a normal classroom.
Reach MATT HUGHES at 270-667-2068 or firstname.lastname@example.org.