When 17-year-old Xavier Dover should have been a high school junior, he had so few credits that he still was considered a freshman.
He didn’t think he would be able to graduate on time, but he proved himself wrong after enrolling in Clark Academy, a small, alternative high school program on James Island. It’s intended to help students who are overage for their grade or have fallen behind their peers.
“They helped me out when nobody else would,” Dover said. “Because it’s smaller, they have more time to teach you.”
Dover’s class will be the 20th to graduate from Clark Academy since it opened in 1990. It began as a partnership between the nonprofit Communities in Schools and the Charleston County School District as an academic alternative program, and that partnership continues today.
The nonprofit provides two counselors who work with students daily by talking about their problems and encouraging them to stay in school.
“The need is still there,” said Jane Riley-Gambrell, executive director of Communities in Schools. “We’re helping them address the issues that might’ve been the barrier for making their high school experience be as productive.”
The program has faced uncertainty and changes in its recent past, but many say it’s as strong or better than it has ever been. Some feared the district planned to close Clark Academy when it changed from a stand-alone school to a program in 2007. That hasn’t happened, and Andrew HaLevi, a former Burke High teacher and former leader of the district’s teacher advocacy group, became its director in 2008.
HaLevi has been more proactive in marketing the program directly to students who could benefit from it, as well hiring faculty who can communicate with and build relationships with students.
“We talk to each other, and we want to help kids,” said teacher Meike McDonald, who is finishing her eighth year at Clark Academy. “The students see a lot of success.”
The program is housed in a stand-alone building and enrolls about 130 students. It graduates anywhere from 45 to 60 students each year, which is far more than its 13-student graduating class six years ago.
HaLevi attributed the increase to the program taking in students who want to take advantage of it, and ensuring its offerings are aligned with students’ needs.
Clark Academy is not a place for students who are constantly getting in trouble. Those students go to Twilight, a nontraditional, computer-based classroom for students with less-serious behavior problems, or the Summit, another computer-based program for those who have been recommended for expulsion.
Clark accepts students who can graduate before their 21st birthday; many enroll when they are 16 or 17 years old and have earned 10 or fewer credits. Students need 24 credits to graduate.
“The (traditional) community schools are not set up for students who fit that profile,” HaLevi said. “We are.”
Clark students said the small classes and caring teachers were why they are able to focus on their school work. Sophomore Aaliyah Blair said she didn’t want to be in her neighborhood school, Stall High, because it was too big and had too many people who caused her problems.
She said she couldn’t keep up with the pace of its classes, and she doesn’t think she would be on track to graduate had she stayed there.
“I’m glad they let me learn at my pace,” she said of Clark. “It was the best for me.”
Most classes don’t have more than 15 students, and that means individualized attention for those who need it. On Tuesday, McDonald spent 10 minutes reviewing one student’s final exam. The student didn’t need a high grade on the test to pass the class, and had missed most questions. McDonald wanted to make sure he could do the work.
“I wanted him to understand,” she said.
Dover’s mother, Shannek, said she didn’t think her son would graduate on time, and she is proud of him for accomplishing that. The extra support through its Communities in School counselor helped show her son he was important and could do well, she said.
“Xavier is and always has been a smart child, but when he’s surrounded with different personalities (in a bigger school), things started to change,” she said. “Some children need a smaller learning environment.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.
Tahaj Buncomb, 16, works with Meike McDonald, algebra II teacher, finishing an assignment as Roberta Ravenell, 17 watches during the last day of school Tuesday, June 4, 2013 at Septima P. Clark Academy. (Paul Zoeller/postandcourier.com)×