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Tuesday, September 4, 2007


'Mercedes of M-GAP' gets students on track James Island Middle program seen as statewide model By Diette Courrégé The Post and Courier Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Post and Courier
Erica Vargas, 13, is in James Island Middle School's Middle Grades Acceleration Program, which has earned wide acclaim.
A pumped-up version of a program to help James Island and Johns Island students who failed one or more years of school had such strong results last year that the state has agreed to help the district duplicate it elsewhere.
The Charleston County School District has 11 classes for overage middle school students, known as its Middle Grades Acceleration Program, or M-GAP. Schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley calls the program at James Island Middle School "the Mercedes of M-GAP."
It shares the same basic components as others but has been infused with extra staff and resources through partnerships with the College of Charleston and Communities in Schools.
"This accelerated program took it to another level in terms of reaching so many children," McGinley said.
The program has been so successful that state Superintendent Jim Rex has agreed to pay some of the roughly $156,000 cost to duplicate it at Brentwood Middle School this year. Brentwood is one of 16 schools statewide in the Palmetto Priority Schools project, an initiative spearheaded by Rex to help schools that have failed to make state-mandated academic progress.
David Rawlinson, director of Palmetto Priority Schools, said he was impressed with the program at James Island Middle because of the school's high student achievement and staff morale, its low discipline referrals, the sense of community the program fostered, and the way students took responsibility for their learning.
If the program shows the same success at Brentwood, Rawlinson said the state would have the data necessary to look at replicating the program in other counties, such as Allendale and Lee.
"I think we'd be remiss if we didn't investigate programs like this," he said.
The program on James Island started in the fall with 37 students. Students' behavior wasn't their biggest problem. Some had experienced the death of a parent while others had moved to a series of different schools. For myriad reasons, the at-risk students hadn't done well in a traditional classroom.
In the end, 33 of the 37 students made up two grades in one year and were promoted to the ninth grade. Students missed an average of three days of school, and about half of the students missed either one or no days. Students who are two are more years behind miss an average of 15 days of school a year.
Students' academic gains were solid but not the best in the district, according to preliminary results on their growth from fall to spring. But the program ranked among the top three in the district for overage students who hit their growth target in reading, and they were in the middle of the pack by the same measure in math.
The program was housed at James Island Middle but operated independently from the school, which meant the program had a separate schedule and handled its own disciplinary problems. Suspending students for inappropriate behavior was the same as giving them a day off, so suspensions weren't an option, said Renee Byrd, M-GAP director at James Island.
The result? Only one student was suspended, for two days, and that suspension was issued by the school's assistant principal. As a comparison, 48 percent of students who were two or more years behind in the district had one or more suspensions.
"Our expectations are high," Byrd said. "The kids understand it."
Students had intense counseling support with one full-time counselor and one part-time Communities in Schools counselor working exclusively with them. Counselors at most schools work with at least a couple of hundred students. The program's counselors held more than 200 small group sessions and 785 individual counseling sessions.
The College of Charleston provided the program with Byrd, and she helped handle students' issues; planned with teachers; and facilitated enrichment activities such as field trips, service learning, career exploration, tutoring, mentoring and community presentations. A staff of three teachers ensured that class sizes were small.
If students didn't show up to school, staff would go to their houses and pick them up. Unfamiliar substitute teachers were not used; other staff filled in if teachers were absent.
"It's all about relationships," Byrd said. "The kids knew we cared about them."
They took a similar approach with parents and won their support. An estimated crowd of 300 showed up for 33 students at their end-of-the-year promotion ceremony. The staff's long-term hope is to see those same 33 students graduate from high school.
Students made academic gains and were more confident, self-assured and socially adept, said Christine Finnan, an associate professor at the College of Charleston who worked with the program.
"It was what we hoped for," she said.
Billy Smithey, a freshman at James Island Charter High School, was in the program last year. He used to get in fights, but not anymore. He used to think that finishing high school wasn't possible, but now he's determined to graduate.
He set daily goals last year and accomplished all of them. Because of that, he thinks he can do whatever he sets out to do. That's coming from the same kid who used to miss the bus on purpose so he didn't have to go to school.
"I'm doing a lot better," he said.
Reach Diette Courrégé at or 937-5546.

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