A place for every kid: Career center gives students a chance to get caught up, ahead

Published 10:30 am Saturday, February 12, 2022

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Not long ago, Ivory Taylor was behind on his schoolwork and faced an uphill battle if he was going to graduate on time. The Troup High student said he wasn’t focused enough in the traditional classroom, and he knew he was running out of opportunities to walk across the stage with his class.

On Tuesday, Taylor officially completed his high school requirements to finish high school three months ahead of his peers. Not only will he walk across the graduation stage in May with his classmates, he’s actually got a head start on them.

How did a student so far behind end up graduating ahead of his class?

Taylor became a student at the Troup County Career Center, a TCSS program focused on credit recovery through non-traditional learning methods. The focus is on one-on-one instruction, along with the use of mentors and tutors, to help students who have fallen behind get caught up.

The success of the program is shown in the numbers. Principal Jeff Little said by the end of summer 2021, 73 of the 103 seniors at the career center had graduated.

“That came to about a 65% graduation rate for kids that should have been a 0% grad rate,” Little said, meaning in the past many of the students who graduated might not have.

Little said students who fail a class during their freshman year of high school are exponentially more likely to graduate than students who don’t. The career center helps students in that type of situation get refocused.

“Sometimes it is their fault, but it doesn’t really matter [why],” Little said. “They’re behind, and they want to catch up, and we need to provide them that opportunity, so we appeal to that kid you that has fallen a little bit behind, they become credit deficient.”

In the past, the school system had credit recovery programs, where students could stay after class or go through the summer to get caught up.

However, not everyone could participate in those due to issues like transportation, which created an economic barrier.

The school system also tried performance learning centers at each of the three high schools. Students were in a classroom all day, attempting to get caught up on classwork.

“It felt like the kids were more or less locked in a basement in a classroom, sitting in front of a panel all day long,” Little said.

“Their learning opportunities were with a paraprofessional in that classroom, who maybe didn’t have the curriculum knowledge and the content to be able to necessarily help the kids one-on-one, or small group, or give them the assistance they needed beyond what the online platform taught.”

The graduation rate did improve and highly motivated students did well, but overall, the results weren’t quite what TCSS wanted, Little said.

That’s how TCSS got to the career center, which is located on West Georgia Tech’s campus thanks to a partnership between the college and the school system.

“When we started the program, I shared with the faculty a vision of every kid graduating,” Little said. “We want a 100% graduation rate, and every kid having a plan going forward, and that usually means a job.”

Before Taylor left Tuesday after completing his requirements for graduation, Little asked him what was next for him. What was he going to do since he graduated three months ahead of his class? How would he spend the time?

“Do you know what you’re going to do tomorrow?” Little asked.

“I’ve got to come back here tomorrow,” Taylor said.

“OK, then the next day? Don’t tell me you’re going to sleep in,” Little joked, though the point was understood.

Little, and others involved in the mentorship program like Glenn Dowell, Willie Mae Callaway, and Yoofi Dowell — will tell you that’s the approach — keep students motivated to be successful, even after graduation.

“Our clerical staff knows every student,” Little said. “We focus on those relationships. When I started, I said, you’ve got to know these kids, and you’ve got to lift them up.”

Attendance is tightly monitored, even beyond that of the school system’s protocol, Little said. When a student isn’t there, they are hearing from someone to find out why.

“The district has attendance protocol, but ours is far more intense,” he said. “Our teachers call, our administrators call, our staff calls, and we are looking at attendance on a weekly basis. There’s a policy in the district where after 10 days, we can withdraw the kid. We don’t do that. If they’re gone, if they’ve been gone for 10 days, we’ve had a number of communications with them, with their parents, trying to find out what they want to do.”

Little used an example where a student might say they want to take the GED. He said in that instance, he asks if they’d come by the career center to take the practice GED and see how they do. If a student doesn’t do well, he tries to convince them to take a class in that subject to get more prepared.

The program also relies on LaGrange College alumni like Agrlin Braxton and Jose Almanza, who work directly with the mentors and tutors.

“Once you’re done … you see these kids graduate, it’s a different kind of feeling when you see that emotion,” Almanza said.

“I’ve had people that I mentored two years ago when we first started that came back to me this year and, say, ‘Hey, thank you. I have a job.’”

Little said there’s actually a waiting list of students who need to get into the career center. He thinks by next year there will be around 250 students in the program. There were 138 students enrolled as of Tuesday, but that includes some students who never actually step on campus. The Career Center oversees all work-based learning in the district, so if a student is working and getting credit for school work, then they are technically enrolled at the career center.

The school currently has six paraprofessionals, five teachers, two administrators and a clerical staff member.

“One of the results would be for kids to stay here in LaGrange, and to go to the many jobs that are coming this way,” Glenn Dowell said.

“This is going to be a major Empowerment Center for that process.”

Dowell said that’s what makes the career center so different than other alternative learning centers around the country — they aren’t “playing school.”

“[Others,] all they have is the online instruction. And it’s a babysitting service. That’s what it is,” Dowell said.

“This is not a babysitting service. This is your last chance.”

But not all students at the career center are behind. Some may already know a career field they want to go into and see a need to focus on it directly.

Thanks to a program the state has called option B — West Georgia Tech refers to it as Option Bravo — students have the ability to earn a high school diploma and two certificates from West Georgia Tech by the time they graduate high school.

There are currently 30 TCSS students enrolled in the Option Bravo program at West Georgia Tech taking classes such as welding, automotive precision machining, precision manufacturing and early childhood. In August, nursing is expected to become an option as well.

“Our job doesn’t stop at graduation,” said Kathy Bowen, assistant principal at the career center. “We need honest, wonderful taxpaying citizens that stay in this community, and there’s enough jobs in this community.”

Bowen believes there could be as many as 100 students in the Option Bravo program next year when nursing starts.

“We get the students interested in seeing what’s going on around here and what their future could very easily be,” said Dr. Julie Post, president of West Georgia Technical College. “And the pathway is what’s important. So, partnering with the Troup County School System is an incredible way to do that. So, we’re grateful to them, that they trust us and want to be our partner.”

Post said there’s also a constant evaluation of the programs being offered to see if any others can be added to ensure the college is helping fill needed employment opportunities in the community.

“It’s a work in progress,” she said. “And it’s a constant going back and forth and trying to say this is what we really need in this community to serve our businesses.”

The program is working out well for students like Trey Martin, who is working toward certificates in electrical and brakes, steering and suspension. Martin said he didn’t like the traditional classroom setting, but now he’s working toward his career in the automotive field.

He said if Option Bravo didn’t exist, he’d still be in school, but his life would look a lot different. He said when he graduates he’s planning to work at an automotive repair shop in Newnan and work his way up as a diesel technician.

“I’d still be at my base school, I’d just be struggling,” Martin said of Option Bravo. “Very different experience.”

The Option Bravo program also includes mentors like Gabe Pallo, who is a member of LaGrange College’s Servant Scholar program. He spends time getting to know students and help them handle issues they are facing.

“I’m only a junior, so I’m about to turn 21. Having such a little age gap there,” Pallo said.

“I think it helps them feel more comfortable to open up and kind of talk to us because we can relate to them a little bit more than one of their teachers.”

Mentors talk to students one-on-one, asking them questions each week to help them become more comfortable and to start conversations.

It’s part of a larger process that has led to success for the career center overall. Little said the last piece missing is a parent component, but there are some things in the works to add that as well.

“With the PLC, the work-based learning, the dual enrollment, the social-emotional learning, the community-based involvement, when we get that parent piece in place,” Little said,

“I think we’ve got a scaffold that that’s going to carry these kids not just through graduation, but through life.”