Four years ago, the Stars after-school program at Randolph High School began looking for ways to encourage ninth-graders who were at risk of becoming dropouts to stay in school. This year, its first class is graduating with flying colors, according to Stars officials.
Of the 25 students identified by Randolph schools as likely candidates for being kept back in Grade 9 - a strong predictor of failure to graduate - 21 are on track to graduate this spring. Two others are still in school and on track to graduate next year, according to LaCasha Wilburn, Stars’ Randolph High School program director.
The Stars “out-of-school time’’ program provides a time and place to do homework, a high staff-to-student ratio to offer academic help, and attractive activities and skills development projects to look forward to. Stars students say the program kept them in school, despite a sometimes troubled school climate.
A series of student fights this year led Randolph police to assign a second officer to the 800-student high school last month. The school also held a series of forums with parents to discuss school violence. But efforts like the Stars program have helped improve academic performance in a school where many students come from low-income households.
“It was a life changer for me,’’ said Josh Pina, whose plan after graduation is to go to school for training as a mechanic. “I never knew which direction I wanted to go.’’
Pina said recently that Stars gave him a place to get help with his schoolwork, connect with others, and grow as a person.
“It made me stay after school,’’ he said, “so I wasn’t on the street.’’
Senior Kenneth “KJ’’ Yellock goes even further. “I know I would probably be behind bars right now if I hadn’t been in Stars,’’ Yellock said.
The Weymouth-based nonprofit (full name: Stars: Excellence in Education, Enrichment & Family Support) also provides preschool education and other youth development services in communities south of Boston.
Partnering with Randolph High School, the agency received a grant from the state education agency to improve the school’s graduation rate by targeting students identified by the school as in danger of failing Grade 9 because of academic, behavioral, or social issues, such as a non-English language background.
Wilburn called the program’s graduation numbers “really impressive.’’ State officials agreed.
Based on the numbers and the observations made during site visits, “It appears [the] program is having success in helping participants be on track for graduating on time,’’ said Teri Valentine, special projects coordinator for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
According to education department figures, Randolph’s graduation rate had declined from 77.5 percent in the 2006-07 school year to 64.4 percent in 2008-09.
Stars staff say ninth grade is the key year to turn that trend around.
‘It was a life changer for me.’Josh Pina Randolph High senior in Stars program
“All the studies show that retention in Grade 9 is a clear indication of problems,’’ said Gwen Tarbox, Stars’ director of program resource development.
A lot of things happen in Grade 9, Tarbox said. Students go to a new school, meet new peers, and face tougher academic demands and stronger temptations. Young teenagers who lack necessary academic skills but have been promoted up the ladder in the earlier grades find they can no longer cope.
“The work is harder, you have many different teachers, nobody advocates for you,’’ Tarbox said. “Things can unravel very quickly.’’
And when students start to fail, they often have little social and institutional support to stay in school.
Suffering over his mother’s death from cancer, Randolph senior Yellock said his connection with Stars in ninth grade kept him going. Through Stars he did his homework after school, played basketball, and began helping younger kids with their work, instead of looking for consolation in the streets. He now plans to go to college to study math.
For Armand Powell, who now serves as the student representative to the Randolph School Committee and presents regular reports, Stars provided the growth experience he needed in Grade 9.
“I didn’t understand how important school is,’’ Powell said recently. “Stars gave me some place to interact with the program, to interact with people.’’ He plans to go to college next year and major in human resources.
“It was very much a transitioning time,’’ agreed Jehovanie Robert. “There are a lot of choices. I certainly could have wasted time. Being in the Stars program challenged my work.’’
A solid after-school routine, a summer job provided by Stars, and contact with “good counselors who enjoyed their job’’ got her high school career off on the right foot, Robert said. “I spent every day there and I made friends,’’ she said.
Her academics thrived. After taking Advanced Placement courses in psychology and English, she plans to attend the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in Boston.
Like many others in the program, Powell and Pina have continued to work with Stars as mentors for younger students. While the program was initially designed only for ninth-graders, the students “loved it so much that they wrote a letter asking if they could please continue and come back in 10th grade,’’ Wilburn said. Given permission by the state, students returned for a second year and many are still involved as paid, part-time mentors and summer camp counselors.
“Volunteering is what I like the most,’’ Pina said. He stayed connected with Stars by working as a mentor in a town elementary school. This year he works with younger students at Randolph High two hours a day.
“I have to be a good influence on them,’’ Pina said. Being a mentor for others means he has to keep up his own academic and behavioral standards. “If they need help with a problem, I’m there.’’
The program’s digital media arts club is one example of a club that exercises a strong pull on Stars students.
Stars fashioned its educational program on the “project-based learning model,’’ Tarbox said. That means that in addition to homework time, students take part in educational enrichments - called “clubs’’ - such as digital media arts, robotics, cooking science, and photography and Photoshop skills. Projects are one of the reasons why the program has an attendance rate twice as high as other after-school programs, Tarbox said.
“I love doing digital media,’’ Powell said. “We get to work on music, get to make beats. No idea is ever shut down.’’
“Stars gave me the chance to get back on track,’’ said Pina, who now dreams of one day owning a chain of auto repair shops. “I want my own shop.’’Robert Knox can be reached at email@example.com.