Acceleration Academies to start in Odessa

Starting after Thanksgiving, students who were anywhere along the path to getting their high school diploma will have a chance to complete that journey through a partnership with Ector County ISD and Acceleration Academies.

“We essentially come into a school district and offer an opportunity to kids who have for whatever reasons found frustration in the traditional setting,” Communications Director Jeffrey Good said. “It’s a way to get young people who might otherwise drop away back on track and ready to earn a diploma, go into the military, go on to higher education, go into the workforce with a diploma and a sense of self confidence and some skills that they might not otherwise have had. It’s wonderful to partner with a district like Ector County that really wants to take care of all the young people.”

President Mark Graves said as part of the partnership agreement with ECISD, they identify all the students who are eligible for the program.

ECISD has identified a little over 2,000 students who would be eligible for the program. But they expect 250 to 300 students the first year.

“We’re talking about students from the previous four high school cohorts who have withdrawn, have a withdrawal code, or leaver code as they call them in Texas, and has not met the requirements for a high school diploma. There’s the age component; they have to be a member of the previous four cohorts and they have to have not met those requirements for a high school diploma,” Graves said.

Graves said these are students under age 21 promoted to the eighth or ninth grade. For special education students, it’s 22.

“In some school districts, we’re serving over-aged eighth graders so we’re really looking at 15 to 21 year old students. When the school district identifies those students, they generate a list for us and then we take that list, we take the last known home addresses of each of those students and we geomap those,” Graves said. “We use that information to inform our decision about where we’ll locate our academy. Then we hire engagement coaches and we go out and we knock on the doors of every eligible student identified by the school district.”

Outreach efforts take place through home visits and a national call center that they operate, he said.

“… We also have marketing efforts that take place inside the community,” Graves said. “We’re working with local social service agencies, any of the community partners that we can lock arms with to bolster the services, especially social services, because oftentimes we see lower household incomes so the need for more social assistance, for example. Typically, we are serving high populations of free and reduced lunch in our academies and so really connecting and helping them build a network, not only for those services but for career exploration and post secondary planning. We’re really intentional about relationships with the local community college and so we’ll be partnering with Odessa College probably within the next week to 10 days, renting some space on the Odessa College campus to begin serving students in a temporary facility,” he added.

They will use office space at Odessa Collegiate Academy on the OC campus and will have an academy in a portable building initially. They will then move the academy to the Sherwood Village Shopping Center, 1123 E. 42nd St.

“… Building those relationships with local higher education is really critical to helping students accelerate their ability to increase their income potential, because again, a lot of our students are over-aged and under-credited. Many of our students have young families of their own, so identifying those partnerships and the ability for dual enrollment and leaving our program not only with a high school diploma but some sort of certification or credential is really what our 2022 next level expectations are going to be for our graduation candidates, which is what we call our students,” Graves said.

He added that they will be rolling out a robust career and technical education program next year to help connect students with those opportunities.

“Our hope is to be here to help support the school district, increase their graduation rate to the point where they wouldn’t need an Acceleration Academy as more and more of the students are finding their way to on-time graduation and we would be able to have those supports in place to where we would eventually, potentially work ourselves out of a job, that would be the ideal case scenario,” Graves said.

The first academy opened in 2014.

For some background, Graves said Acceleration Academies founders were lifelong educators Joseph Wise and David Sundstrom. They set out to learn more about the “national high school dropout pandemic” in 2013.

“Back in 2013,” Graves said, “there were 1.9 million high school age students … here in America that were disengaged from their high school curriculum; not enrolled in any schools, but yet still young enough to come back and work toward their high school diploma before they age out. And in each state, the state will pay for students traditionally to work up until their 21st birthday for free toward a public standard high school diploma; 22 for students who are on the special education track,” Graves said.

Wise and his colleagues wanted to learn about this population of students. They had a chance to partner with a program back then called Drop Back in Academies.

“They operated a similar blended learning model that we use today, so they had schools/academies across multiple states similar to what we do. We had an opportunity to survey and focus group 2,100 students across six states to learn all about the triggers to dropping out and the intensive supports that this population of students identified as being critical to their success and a reengagement program like they were in with Drop Back in Academies,” Graves said.

Through that research, they learned these students needed extended time throughout the day to meet with teachers and tutors, not just a regular 8 to 2 school day, for example.

There was a need to slow things down and go from seven courses and seven books to one course at a time, he said.

“The need for mentorship; the need for life coaching; career coaching; the postsecondary planning identification of non-academic barriers to success,” Grave said.

They put all of this into a blended learning research model that they use now to serve Acceleration Academy students.

“I’m proud to say that we are going to be operating in six states serving students this fall with the Ector and Wichita (locations),” Graves said.

The students Acceleration Academies recruit have disengaged and been identified by the school district.

“We recruit them and we invite them to come back and join our program of the school district working in that research-based, technology-backed model, one course at a time toward a standard high school diploma that is issued by their home school district,” Graves said.

Assistant Superintendent of Student and School Support Alicia Syverson said research shows that students make the decision about whether to complete school as young as third grade.

“That’s part of the reasons for the commitment to literacy because (for) the students who cannot read on grade level, it is a greater struggle for them to complete. It’s not just a junior high or high school problem in a school district, it’s an elementary school commitment as well to make sure those gaps don’t grow as students move through the school system,” Syverson said.

“Literacy is a huge component to students graduating from high school and if kids are struggling in third grade to read and they make that decision in third grade, it is up to us to fill those gaps. So when Mark talks about gap closure, I think about the district’s commitment to providing high-speed broadband to all families in a partnership with SpaceX. We know that research as well, so it’s that intentionality and asking ourselves so what are we going to do about it? If not us, then who and if not now when? And that is a district commitment,” Syverson added.

Graves said a lot of students have been lost to the pandemic.

“Some of the conversations I’ve had around the country, some school districts have between 10 and 40 percent of their students lost. Lost learners are what they’re calling these kiddos,” he said. “Kids who have fallen behind, they were forced into a fully remote online program and it really led to more focus of the gaps that we have in students and families that can’t afford broadband access, so it really highlights that. That causes a lot of students to fall through the cracks simply because of the gap in technology availability for some families.”

But there are other factors that play into dropping out. It could be bullying, substance abuse, the need to take on employment or an unplanned pregnancy.

“A fair number of the kids who come to us have just felt overwhelmed and lost and in large classroom settings,” Good said. “They feel too shy to raise their hand, or they’ve fallen so far behind because of that dynamic that began many years earlier. They don’t know exactly where to turn. The very important thing that we offer them is all kinds of one on one coaching and support for both academic areas and also in their social and emotional needs. A teen parent is not just dealing with … how am I going to pass algebra. She’s dealing with how am I going to take care of this baby, how am I going to support myself and this child. We provide not only educators, who we call content coaches who can help young people with their specific subject areas, but also advocates who help them take care of some of those non-academic issues that are getting in the way of their academic progress,” Good said.

He noted that when students drop out of high school thinking they can just get a good job, they find that many of the jobs they apply for require a high school diploma, as does the military.

Syverson said the district’s Community Outreach Center, run by Scott Randolph, had 90 students in October.

“… These are students that are either behind on credits or have dropped out of school … We ended school with 128 last year, so we are seeing more students participating in a dropout recovery program, or a credit recovery program early on this year as compared to last year. And that just, again, emphasizes the need for an alternative for these kids outside of the traditional comprehensive high school experience,” Syverson said.

She said the academies will help free up the Outreach Center.

“Our outreach center is staffed with social workers ready to wrap around these students. It was never intended to be a school. It was just an alternative for students who were not successful in the comprehensive high school or who had reasons that the comprehensive high school wouldn’t work for them. The Acceleration Academies program is a much more intentional approach with sustainability built in over time,” Syverson said. “This partnership with Acceleration Academies will allow Scott Randolph and his team of social workers to do what they do best and that is wrap around students and provide support, as opposed to trying to be an alternative school which is not the intention of community outreach. They’re excited about this partnership, too.”