About halfway into his geometry class, West Ashley High School junior John Rhodes realized he might fail.

He was doing his homework and paying attention in class, but the material just didn't stick with him. His mid-term grade was a 59, and he needed a 70 to pass.

He decided to try to boost his grade through a unit recovery class, an innovative after-school program that allows students to re-take a portion of the course they're in so they can learn the required information and attempt to earn a better grade.

Rhodes stayed after school three hours a day for two weeks taking the course online, and he earned the highest grade possible, a 70, which replaced his 59.

"It was a long day, but that was the price I had to pay," he said. "I think it was a pretty good option."

Most high schools offer students a way to retake courses they fail, but the online unit recovery courses at West Ashley High are a relatively new concept attracting statewide attention. The program won an Initiative Award from the state for being a model for others on how to keep at-risk kids in school and graduate on time.

John Lane, the state Department of Education official who coordinates services for at-risk students statewide, said he was proud of the work being done at West Ashley High, and he's shared their program with other districts. Some local schools, such as Wando High, have heard about it and are following suit.

"West Ashley High is one of the schools that truly is on the cutting edge and leading the way," Lane said. "They have proven to be quite effective."

West Ashley High Principal Mary Runyon, assistant administrator Ryan Cumback, and a few teachers brainstormed the idea a couple of years ago as another way they could help kids. The concept has turned into a well-oiled machine that doesn't compromise the integrity or rigor of the curriculum, Runyon said.

It benefits students and the school by boosting graduation rates, which in turn affect state report card ratings, she said.

"It is long overdue," Runyon said. "It makes so much sense. I don't know why we never though of it."

Since the program's inception in 2008-09, 207 of the 224 West Ashley High students who attempted to earn a higher grade through unit recovery were successful in doing so and went on to pass that class, according to school officials. Ninety-six percent of the students who enroll in initial credit, credit recovery, or unit recovery classes end up passing their classes.

"We have to get these kids an education and get them a diploma, and this is a means to accomplish that end," Runyon said.

West Ashley High began offering online credit recovery courses in 2007, and that evolved into unit recovery by the start of the 2008-09 school year. To qualify for credit recovery classes, which involves retaking an entire course, state rules require students to have made at least a 61 percent. Seventy percent is considered passing, and that's the maximum grade a student can earn by taking credit recovery classes.

For unit recovery, West Ashley High teachers decided students would have to have at least a 55 to enroll. With that grade, students should have learned enough that the unit recovery course could help them pass, Runyon said.

Students must take the course online every day after school from 2:30 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. until they finish the unit, and certified teachers staff the after-school computer labs to help them with any questions.

Cumback broke the credit recovery courses down into smaller units, and he allowed teachers to review the material to ensure students would be learning the same information covered in class. In some cases, teachers submitted additional lessons because they weren't included in the online course. That helped teachers buy into the idea, he said.

Caroline Newton chairs the math department at West Ashley High and teaches geometry. She supports unit recovery but said some teachers don't because they believe students shouldn't have the option of erasing a grade. But students have to make at least a 70 during the second half of the class to pass, and for some, pulling a 55 up to a 70 would be almost impossible without unit recovery, she said.

"This gives them a clean slate to start over and not have to make such a high grade to pass," she said. "It's a great option for all kids, but they don't all take advantage of it."

Some students don't want to put in the extra effort while others don't have transportation, she said. Others take the course but still can't earn a high enough grade during the second half of the course to pass, she said.

"It's not a magic thing but it does allow some students who weren't passing to end up passing the course," Newton said.

The biggest impediment to expanding unit recovery courses has been funding. The school doesn't receive money to pay the teachers who work in the after-school labs or to provide transportation for students.

Officials have had to find creative ways to cover the program's cost. The $1 fee students pay for a temporary ID badge goes to these courses, and the unit recovery courses cost $30.

More students would be able to take the courses if the school could offer transportation, but that's a big expense the school hasn't been able to consistently cover, Runyon said.

For Rhodes, unit recovery made a big difference in him passing geometry. He worked harder the second semester, but it didn't make the geometry lessons any easier to grasp. He went into the final exam with a 68 average and finished the class with a 72.

Rhodes is scheduled to graduate in the spring of next year, and he's deciding between the Air Force and Navy.

Reach Diette Courrégé at 937-5546.