TAMPA — Catapult Academy doesn’t look like a school.
There’s no cafeteria, gym or even classroom inside the utilitarian building. There are just rows of computers with students silently working towards completing their high school diploma — stopping to talk to each other when they want to and putting on their headphones to listen to music when they don’t.
Yet Catapult, the only dropout prevention program of its kind in Hillsborough County, is expanding at a rapid rate as the school district works to improve its 76 percent graduation rate. For students like 21-year-old William Garrett, the school provides just the amount of support he needs to finally complete his degree.
“It is a great environment for learning; if you’re looking to get work done this is the place to be,” Garrett said. He came to Catapult in its first year of operation, the 2014-15 school year, following a friend’s advice after he dropped out of Robinson High School to enter the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Corps program.
Now, Garrett only has a handful of credits and a few more months until he graduates with a traditional high school diploma.
“With JobCorp there were so many different things you had to do and a long waiting list, and I knew I wanted to get my education done now, so I came here,” Garrett said. “It’s remarkably easy and I was able to start almost immediately.”
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Last school year, 118 Hillsborough County students ages 16- 21 — or 22 if they are special education students — enrolled in Catapult and 23 completed their high school degree. This school year, 409 students have enrolled at Catapult.
The school opened its fourth Tampa location, at the George Bartholomew North Tampa Community Center, this month to keep up with its surging enrollment and it is currently looking for its fifth.
“We were looking for a program beneficial enough to draw those students back in so they can get their high school diploma and move on to the next step,” said Walt Shaffner, the school district’s director of nontraditional programs.
“It’s working with our other district programs, like the alternative to out of school suspension program, to achieve that goal.”
Every high school in Hillsborough County offers credit recovery courses on its campus but can also refer students to Catapult, a privately operated school contracted through the district much like a charter school.
Catapult is free to students and follows the same curriculum and standards used in public high schools.
Catapult operates on a different schedule than high school credit recovery programs, which allows students to earn credit as soon as they complete a course instead of having to wait until the end of the semester or school year to graduate, said Shannon Folsom, regional director of Catapult Learning.
“That’s the difference. Kids are able to come in and catch up instead of having to complete a full year of school,” Folsom said. “It’s a self-paced program and the kids can pick up wherever they left off.”
The courses are mainly online, but Catapult also offers small group instruction.
Students still have to complete the same requirements they would in their traditional high schools. Instead of attending a traditional credit recovery class for one or two periods in a normal school day, students enrolled at Catapult work at least five hours each day to finish as fast as possible.
They can enroll at any time and also spend one day a week discussing their plans after graduation, college prep, resume help and guest speakers.
“The schools will often take a student aside and say, ‘You might want to check this out’ to give them options,” Folsom said. “A lot of them have children , a lot of them have to work for their families or just have family situations that have forced them not to be as successful or attend school on a regular basis. We can offer them some more flexibility.”
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This school year, 90 percent of Catapult students qualified for free or reduced price lunches and were deemed economically disadvantaged by the state Department of Education.
The setup provides those students with flexibility to meet their other responsibilities while also providing more accountability than they would get with online-only programs, said Hillsborough County area manager for Catapult Karly Anderson.
It also eliminates the social anxiety felt by some students in traditional high schools, Anderson said.
“Maybe they were bullied in public school or got nervous in class,” Anderson said. “This is individual. They don’t have to socialize with anybody here and a lot of them are very successful in this environment.”
The state-required Florida Standard Assessment has also proved a barrier for student completion, Folsom said.
Students are required to pass the Algebra 1 exam taken by middle or high school students and 10th grade English Language Arts exam to graduate.
The small structure of Catapult allows for more one-on-one test prep, she said.
“It’s intimidating to them,” Folsom said. “They hear the test is coming up and almost don’t want to come to school.”
It’s too early to measure Catapult’s true success in Hillsborough, Shaffner said, but the schools have expanded throughout Georgia and Florida in recent years, including Volusia, Duval, Marion and Hernando counties.
Catapult Academy is a division of Catapult Learning LLC, which has programs in 39 states.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect figure for students who completed their high school degree. We regret the error.