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Night high school the last, best chance for some

By Samiha Khanna
The News & Observer of Raleigh
DURHAM (AP) ó Brandon Alexander had been working at a South Durham movie theater more than a year when he got a 30-cent raise, to $6.80 an hour. At 18, the Southern High dropout saw that it was going to take a long time to save for a car ó unless he went back to class.
“I realized I could make so much better money and have a career,” he said. “To do that, you have to have a diploma.”
With his mother ill and out of work, Alexander has to keep his job to help pay for some day-to-day expenses. So he enrolled in Southern’s new night school.
Up and running for two months now, Southern’s “Evening Academy” has become many students’ last and best chance to graduate from high school. The program is aimed at recovering students who are behind, those who have dropped out and students who need to work or care for family during the day.
“A lot of them are motivated and want to graduate,” said Darneise Massey, the assistant principal at Southern in charge of the night program. “They just have other commitments.”
The night-school model is catching on.
Johnston County schools started a 20-student evening program in January. Guilford County serves about 75 students in its new Twilight School. While the Durham program is paid for by a dropout-prevention grant, most districts are finding other ways to fund such programs.
Keeping kids in school
As the number of dropouts in North Carolina topped 23,500 last year, legislators have called for more money and new ideas to get students through school.
“It’s an economic issue. It’s a crime issue,” said state Rep. Earline Parmon, a Winston-Salem Democrat who co-chairs a legislative committee on dropout prevention. “We know that if students drop out, they’re more likely to end up in prison.”
A report by the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation estimated that in one year, high-school dropouts from 2005 alone cost state taxpayers $169 million in lost tax revenue, prison costs and programs including Medicaid.
In January, the state awarded $7 million in new grants for efforts to expand or create programs to keep high schoolers on track.
Durham public schools used a $149,000 grant to start the four-night-a-week program at Southern, where 124 students dropped out last year ó more than at any other Durham school.
The school has struggled with low state test scores and teacher turnover. More than 40 percent of students at Southern are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches, so many of them have financial responsibilities and other burdens beyond their years.
Quanetta Smart missed a year of school after her parents died in rapid succession. Smart was sent from New Jersey to North Carolina to live with a relative and attend Southern.
Now 18, she has moved out, receives her parents’ Social Security checks and manages her own finances, she said. She likes the relative quiet of the small night school and is resolute about finishing.
“I don’t want to be no high school dropout,” Smart said. “I just think about what my mom and dad would want me to do,” she said.
Computer work
The Southern program, designed for 30 students, has grown to 40 and already has a short waiting list.
Students work on computers in self-paced lessons. Teachers, who often have just four or five students, instruct or conduct labs when necessary. They can offer more individualized instruction than in a traditional high school class. The computer-based lessons are hosted online, and teachers can virtually look over students’ shoulders to make sure they’re progressing.
Science teacher Courtney Blake-Mitchell teaches both day and night at Southern, 12 hours daily.
It’s important for the struggling students to develop relationships with teachers they see often, she said. It motivates them, she said.
Some students are taking on extra loads, too. Carlos Thompson is among the few Southern students attending both day and night school, sitting through nearly 10 hours of class a day. He didn’t drop out, but he did fail some classes and wants to graduate on time.
“I just take breaks and make sure I eat a good breakfast and a full lunch,” Thompson said.
In addition to classes, students get job training and may sign up for tutoring for high school competency tests.
Jeanette Alexander, Brandon’s mother, said her son has a new attitude.
“He’s doing his homework and assignments well in advance,” she said. At one point, he was actually three days ahead of schedule in his science class, Blake-Mitchell said.
Having seen the paycheck he was limited to without a diploma, Brandon said, he’ll never let himself slip back into skipping school.
“I guess I matured up and realized what I’m doing with my life,” he said. “I got to think about my future.”

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