Last February, 16-year-old Megan enrolled at the Richmond County Performance Learning Center in Augusta, Georgia, with just one high school credit to her name. She had lost ground academically while caring for her ill father and then was thrust into the unstable world of foster care after he died.
This spring, only a year after coming to the alternative high school, Megan is just a little shy of hitting the halfway mark toward graduation. She enjoys writing and literature, and is feeling hopeful about her future. She also thinks her father would have been proud. “What keeps me going is I want to be successful when I grow up,” she said. “If he were here, he would push me to do what was right.”
Performance Learning Centers (PLCs) are designed to help students such as Megan who are far behind accumulate credits quickly so they can graduate. The first one opened in Georgia in 2003 and since then they have been established in a dozen communities in the State. They also operate in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other States.
“They’re doing amazing work with the kids all of the time,” said Cayanna Good, Georgia’s Innovative Programs director. Critical to the centers’ success, Good said, is the flexibility they offer students, who can get extra help before or after school, work at their own pace, and even graduate at any time during the year. For example, the center in Augusta has had about 120 students of various ages enrolled this year, and 20 already have graduated. Another 20 are expected to graduate this spring, according to the school’s principal, Natalie Robinson.
Success Means Graduating
Good said the centers make it clear to students that they define success as earning a high school diploma and acquiring at least one marketable skill. Another important aspect of the centers is their focus on relationships. “I see every single adult connected to the [centers] absolutely committed to the children there,” she said.
Students agree. Megan said she might have walked out of school a few times had it not been for Robinson’s encouragement. “When I have gotten upset and thought I was ready to give up, she was the one I came to talk to,” Megan said. “She’s the one that put it in my head that I don’t need to give up.”
The focus on graduating, the flexibility, and the personal touch seems to be a winning combination. Research shows Georgia’s PLCs are meeting their goals of helping students make academic progress, improving graduation rates, and lowering dropout rates. A study comparing districts that had learning centers with those that did not found graduation rates rose after the first year a learning center was established. That rate increased by a six percent after the center had operated for at least two years. Because students at the learning centers are able to take and complete courses at an accelerated rate, many end up being able to graduate on time with their peers. For example, 25 of the 30 students who graduated last year from the Floyd County PLC in Rome, Georgia, graduated with their cohort.
Taking a Successful Innovation to Scale
Despite the success of the centers, the State’s four-year graduation rate, at 71.5 percent, is below the national rate of 80 percent. To improve that rate, the State included the expansion of the PLCs in its application for the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program. That made it possible to expand centers in Richmond and Floyd counties and in the Carrolton City School District. Collectively, those centers serve about 200 students.
While States have looked to the Federal grant program to help them innovate and try new approaches, Georgia officials wanted to invest in and scale up a State-led program that had been effective but didn’t have the reach they wanted. State officials say the learning centers also serve a key goal of getting more young people ready for college and careers by helping them complete high school.
The nonprofit Communities in Schools of Georgia manages the centers and works with school and community leaders, local agencies, businesses and institutions of higher education to build a support system for students. Community and service learning is part of the curriculum as well, ensuring students have a chance to give back to the community and experience working in teams outside the classroom just as they might in college or careers. Students at the centers get a mix of online and in-person teacher-led instruction tailored to meet each student where he or she is academically. Students are actively involved in setting goals for themselves and tracking their progress.
Santonio, another student at the Augusta center, said mathematics teacher Joyce Williams has served as his mentor—and much more. “I look at her like a mother figure,” he said. “She’s on you just like a mama. It makes you a better person.”
Robinson said she looks for teachers with a passion for and commitment to at-risk students. “When I was coming up in school, I didn’t have to worry about whether the lights were going to be on at home,” she said. “These are real problems our students have to deal with.”
The learning centers take absenteeism very seriously, too, Robinson explained. If a student is out for a day, he or she can expect a call from one or more of the teachers. And if the student continues to be absent, teachers make home visits to find out what’s going on.
“If you don’t have great instruction, you don’t have great schools,” said Neil Shorthouse, president of Communities in Schools of Georgia. “But we’ve got to deal with the personal and non-instructional side, too.”
Brett, a 17-year-old student at the Richmond County Performing Learning Center, said that individual approach has worked for him. Though he came to the alternative school more than a year behind, he’s now caught up, with just four credits left, and is ready to graduate on the same schedule as his peers back at his old school—maybe a little ahead of them.
“It feels amazing,” he said, describing his plans to enroll in a community college and then transfer over to a film school, hopefully in California. “I think anything is possible if you have the determination,” he added.
As for Megan, she plans to keep her focus on graduating soon, too. “I’m really thinking if I work hard enough, I can do this,” she said.
- The State’s PLCs reduce the dropout rate and increase graduation rates across entire school districts, according to an independent evaluation.
- Tutoring and other forms of academic assistance are central to ensuring students do well academically and graduate, according to students and their parents.
- Self-paced instruction, personalized learning and strong connections between the student, the school, and community also make a difference, according to case studies of the centers.
- Key to their success are trained professionals employed by the centers to coordinate volunteer and service-learning opportunities and help meet students’ non-academic and social needs.
National evaluation of Communities in Schools