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A Year at Locke

The Advance Path Academy: learning that clicks

An innovative program using computers and self-motivation offers a second chance to potential dropouts.

March 21, 2009

Teachers call Kendle Malbrough "The Philosopher." The Locke High School senior embellishes the margins of his math papers with musings on the intersection of religion and science. Ordinary conversations lead him to flights of theory on all manner of topics. Why dinosaurs grew so big. What the planet would look like over time if humans were to disappear.

Kendle has one more course to complete before graduation, and then he knows exactly what he wants to do: train as a firefighter. Firefighters, to his way of thinking, help other people more than just about anyone.

"It's not just the fires," he says. "Firefighters, they do lots of stuff to save people. If I could be a firefighter, my life would be so good. It's good now, but it would be ... " He pauses to shake his head at the deficiency of words. "I would do anything. I would learn anything they told me to learn. I would go to school, I would tell all the kids everywhere, 'Stay in school and study.' "

Those are significant sentiments coming from an 18-year-old who considered himself a dropout nine months ago, one of the 75% or so of the 2003 freshman class who never made it to Locke's graduation last June. He lacked nine of the semester class credits he needed to graduate because he had cut too many classes.

"My friends," he explains, "they would say, 'You don't need to go to school today. Come on with us.' "

But Kendle heard that Locke would be changing once it was taken over by charter operator Green Dot Public Schools, and his mother pushed him not to give up lest he set a discouraging example for others. He wasn't sure he would be allowed in, though; from his perspective, he'd had his chance and blown it.

Kendle wasn't just welcomed, he was introduced to a new program designed for students in similar predicaments. When Green Dot administrators examined the Locke records, they found that dozens of students were too far behind on required course work to stand much chance of graduating. Only drastic intervention -- in this case, online classes -- would prevent them from becoming a part of Locke's historically dismal dropout numbers.

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'Classes' in a warehouse

At first, the Advance Path Academy looks more dreary than dramatic: Long institutional tables with computer stations fill a warehouse that previously served as a hide-out where kids smoked marijuana while ditching classes. The 160 students in the academy, mostly juniors and seniors, are divided into two shifts, each shift sitting at the computers for four hours a day. On one wall hangs a blue cap and gown, a constant reminder of the goal. On another is a chart listing all the students, with gold stars representing the number of classes passed.

Green Dot contracts with education company AdvancePath Academics, which provides similar programs in the Glendale, Sacramento and San Bernardino public schools. At Locke, AdvancePath remodeled the warehouse, supplied the course work, which is aligned with California's curriculum, and paid for the computers. Students take their "classes" and some of their tests on the computers, pacing themselves and organizing their time as they wish. Most take one course for four hours a day until they pass. Others split the time among several courses. They consult one of the four teachers when they're stuck; the teachers also grade most of the tests and papers and walk the aisles, prodding students who spend too much time chatting or gazing off into space.

You'd think this would be the educational model least likely to work for these students. How are teenagers who struggled to pass classes taught by flesh-and-blood teachers going to master course work by reading computer screens? The answer comes in conversations with them. One after another, they tell nearly identical stories: They flunked because they seldom went to class. They hid amid the rows of portable buildings, or on rooftops or in closets.

Besides, they say, they weren't learning anything. Instead of instructing them, teachers would hand out work sheets and then ignore them. They didn't get to ask enough questions. With the computer, they're in charge. If they don't understand something, they can click a few steps back. There's always a teacher willing to answer as many questions as they have, working one-on-one or in small groups.

The four-hour school day helps too. Many students hold part-time jobs to help their parents, or have children of their own. Some simply can't stand being in school for a full day. Others do their classwork on home computers, and within weeks pass classes they flunked in years past. Suddenly, they discover their own quick-mindedness. Many have passed eight classes this academic year, more than one a month. For the first time, they also understand the direct correlation between effort and success. The harder and longer they work, the faster they rack up credits.

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