CLOVER -- If students are going to drop out of high school, ninth grade is usually when it happens.
More than a third of students who drop out of high schools nationally do it in their freshman year, said Clover High guidance counselor Jennifer Forrest.
Clover school district administrators hope to change that by implementing grade 8.5, a program that offers a transition for students whose test scores show they're not ready for high school.
"Ninth grade is a crucial year," she said of the challenges in expectations and environment.
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Starting this fall, select students will take grade 8.5 courses in a self-contained classroom at Clover High School designed to get them back on track.
"The curriculum is an acceleration model and will consist of intense academic acceleration in math and reading, designed around individual needs as documented by MAP testing," said Ron Wright, Clover High Principal, referring to Measures of Academic Progress testing.
Other school districts nationwide have similar programs. Nearby, Charlotte/Mecklenburg Schools are planning to implement one next fall, Wright said.
The district has identified 72 students who likely will take part in the inaugural program. These are junior high students with an average of 75 percent or below in math and language arts, Wright said.
Assistant Principal Wendell Sowell said the students won't be given alternatives to the new grade level.
"They can't opt out," Sowell said. "What are they going to opt to do? Stay at the junior high? They'd not be age appropriate down there. This program is designed to accelerate students up to where they need to be. It's not a hold back."
Students in 8.5 are eligible to participate in regular high school extracurricular activities, but they'll be encouraged to focus on studies first, Wright said.
Declining graduation rates
In 2007, Clover schools had a 72.2 percent graduation rate, compared to the 77.9 percent graduation rate for similar schools in the state, according to the school's state report card. These numbers are down almost 10 percent from 2003, when graduation rates first were recorded. At that time, Clover's rate was 83.4 percent.
"If we can catch them (with grade 8.5), then hopefully our graduation rate on the other end will pay off," said Steve Brown, school board chairman.
Brown said the district is always pushing for schools to not let anybody fall through the cracks.
Rather than putting students into a situation they're not prepared for or holding them back, grade 8.5 will give students the ability to move forward without as much struggle, he said.
The students will be divided into classes of about 18, and teachers will come to them with specialized lesson plans. They will work additional time, including an extended day and Saturday school if needed, Wright said.
"Attendance is directly related to a student's success at school," Sowell said.
Students will have the chance at the end of the first semester to take a test to see if they are ready to move up to ninth grade. If they do, they still have the possibility of moving on to 10th grade in the fall, which motivates students to work hard, Wright said.
While some students may feel discouraged being put into the half-level class, it's better than the alternatives, Forrest said.
"I think this is a great compromise," she said. "At least they'll be with peers of their own age group, while we can adjust the curriculum to their needs."