Dropout rates are increasing in urban areas across the country. As a result of factors associated with poverty many students see little value in spending their days at school when many already find it necessary to work full time jobs. For others school becomes more of social affair where they quickly fall behind in their education and become overwhelmed.

ONE ON ONE—Teacher Frank Machi, left, helps student Sean Barnes. (Photo by Ashley G. Woodson).

Enter Bridges to Success, a dropout prevention program that offers an alternative brand of education with a shorter school day and smaller class sizes. Housed at Clayton Academy, the program provides students with a high school diploma from their home school upon completion of the district’s requirements.

“There’s a lot of students who don’t fit the traditional mold of eight-hour days. It’s equivalent to what they’d learn in a normal school year, but it’s half the day,” said Alicia Hilton, academic coach. “We help them with the Pittsburgh Public requirements such as the graduation project. They’re continuously working and completing credits at their own pace. I think working at their own pace is very appealing as well.”

Bridges to Success, is facilitated through the national Your Diploma Your Way company that provides youth between the ages of 16 and 21 with the tools to complete their high school requirements online. In its inaugural year, nearly 100 students attend a morning or afternoon session for four hours Monday through Friday.

“They can be referred by their home school and we’ve just been trying to get the word out to the communities to find the ones who have already dropped out,” said Hilton. “I think the biggest challenge is the population we’re working with has had low attendance rates.”

In order to complete classes, students take online tests and must receive a letter grade of a C or above. This also helps to raise their grade point average. In addition to the students’ normal courses they also have special sessions on reading, finance and career preparation.

“Confidence is a key problem, confidence and a lack of success because a lot of our students haven’t had success in reading,” said Kathleen Trehy who works with students in special Reading Plus sessions. “Mostly students are choosing to come here so now they’re ready to take on responsibility. It’s more of a professional atmosphere.”

Many students enter the program below the academic level for their grade, but Trehy and fellow teacher Frank Machi work to catch them up. In order to keep students engaged in their course work, Machi said real life examples are entwined in every lesson.

“In this setting they are receiving a well-rounded education. It’s providing students with a second chance. The students are aware of what their responsibilities are as the staff are aware. We work as a team, a cohesive group. The results are starting to come in. So far I’m very pleased,” Machi said. “I think in terms of looking at students who have dropped out, it’s good to know the reason why.”

One-on-one time with teachers was a big draw for Mike Wolfe, 18, who said he didn’t always get enough help in class at Brashear High School. He also said working on computers is a better method of education for him because he is a very hands on learner.

“I can’t stay in school long and this is only four hours. The computer teaches you, not the teacher. I focus more. Now I have better grades,” Wolfe said. “There was just one teacher to every 25 students and if I needed help I had to wait for everyone else to be done. If I can work at my own pace like I do here, I think I could get done in a year, but not at my old school.”

The school’s fast pace is the biggest draw listed by students who attend the program. Those who have fallen behind are even able to catch up and graduate on time with others their age.

“You can earn credits faster. I just felt as though I would’ve had to do summer school if I had stayed at Peabody (High School) and I just figured I could get it done faster here,” said Montere Johnson, 17. “Everything’s good. The teachers help you.”

For students like Jazmine Dyer, 18, a former student at Schenley High School, the social interactions associated with being at a larger school can often be distracting. Before joining Bridges to Success, Dyer was sent to Clayton Academy because of self-admitted problems with attendance and doing her schoolwork.

“I like how we come here for four hours. It’s quicker,” Dyer said. “I like how we work on computers and if we don’t know something the teacher helps us. It’s easier to pay attention.”

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