TAMPA – Alexis Benito, 13, just finished sixth grade at Smith Middle School. But if all goes well in his summer classes, he will skip the seventh grade and reunite with kids his own age in the eighth this fall.
The Hillsborough County school district this week began offering for the first time a summer school program that could put students like Alexis who have been held back a grade back in the class where they started.
The program is called STEP, short for Student Trajectory Enhancement Program, and qualifying is two-fold: Students must have been retained in kindergarten through sixth grade and they must have passed the sixth grade last school year.
“They have to be showing success,” said Karine Johns, who oversees the district’s summer programs. “We put together some curriculum in math, science, reading and social studies to boost their performace in hopes we can get them back on track with their cohort.”
Alexis is one of at least 1,100 Hillsborough County students going through the program this summer. About 1,500 students are eligible.
The STEP program was designed as a way to reach students who have been held back and are older than their classmates. About 2,000 of the district’s 200,000-plus students were retained at least once by the sixth grade, said Odalys Pritchard, who oversees STEP.
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Starting in January, the district’s extended-school-year committee scoured test scores, failure rates and other data to see which grade level could use some extra help over the summer.
They considered research showing that students retained twice have a 90 percent risk of dropping out of high school and settled on the middle school level.
“That is a critical level, “ Johns said. “Once you’re in sixth grade, those students who can get back on track are going to be more successful in high school. If we don’t do something for them now, by the time they reach eighth grade, they’ll be more likely to drop out.”
STEP runs through July 31 at 29 of 46 county middle schools, four days per week from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Eligible students who attend other schools can receive transportation to one of the STEP sites.
A lot of group work and hands-on learning are built into the STEP curriculum. Teachers focus on individual students’ needs because class sizes are small, with only about a dozen students each.
“Yesterday, some of our toughest kids were so engaged in learning,” said Stephanie Dershem, lead teacher at Monroe Middle School. “The lessons are very engaging.”
By Tuesday, 52 students from Hill, Martinez and Smith middle schools were attending STEP classes at Smith.
“Some are apprehensive, but I think they’re really excited,” said school psychologist Ashley Diehl, who runs the program there.
For Alexis, there was no apprehension. He was excited to hear about the opportunity.
His family came to Florida from Cuba when he was younger. The language barrier was tough to overcome. He struggled in school and repeated the third grade.
Attending school as the oldest in his classes caused some problems. Some kids gave him a hard time.
“Just because you failed a grade doesn’t mean you’re dumb,” Alexis said. “It means you have a second chance.”
Now, he speaks English well and he hopes he will be promoted to the eighth grade in the fall.
“I think it’s an honor,” he said. “It’s a really great opportunity to do a grade over the summer.”
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In addition to academics, students who go through STEP will receive social and emotional support through a program developed by Frameworks of Tampa Bay, which specializes in youth development. It helps them cope with problems outside school.
“If they have issues going on at home, they’re not necessarily in a good place to learn,” said Kim Williams, Frameworks education director. “We’re trying to get them in a good place to be successful.”
The teachers have been trained to lead their students through daily breathing exercises and team-building activities.
The school district spends about $12.3 million each year staffing summer programs, which are offered to students in pre-K through 12th grade.
Programs include career and technical education camps, course recovery for students who failed a class, and Algebra 1 end-of-course exam preparation for students who haven’t yet passed the test — a requirement for high school graduation.
At the elementary level, first- and fourth-graders who scored low on state reading tests attend reading camp. There are offerings for students with special needs, as well.
Johns said it is too early to tell if summer school programs next year can expect more students or fewer with the debut statewide this fall of new academic standards and a new test aligned to them.
“I’m just not sure,” she said. “Our students might perform wonderfully. We might not need to do additional programming.”