A drug problem led Ricardo Urbina Sanchez, 18, to drop out of high school in 2010, but thanks to the new Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy, he’s getting a second chance to earn a degree.
He was one of 85 students to enter the Durham Public Schools academy at the Horton Career and Resource Center in East Durham on Aug. 26. The students, all 18 to 21 and former dropouts, work in shifts – from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., or from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Urbina Sanchez says that two years after dropping out, he’s cleaned up and seen enough of the real world to settle in to his studies. He didn’t want a future of working minimum-wage jobs like he had to do for those two years.
“It’s perfect. It’s exactly what I needed,” Urbina Sanchez said of the program. “We’re all focused. Everyone here is taking it seriously, so you don’t have any fooling around.”
Students are responsible for getting to school themselves. Urbina Sanchez has no car and has to get rides from classmates every day.
With only one 15-minute break during their shift, there’s not much time for lunch, he said. He tries to make sure he gets a good breakfast, or else he has to rely on vending machines.
There’s room for 50 students in the 200-square-foot room the school calls home at the refurbished Holton Center. They sit in front of computer screens and get their lessons online as classical music plays in the room.
Each student works at his or her own pace in four core subjects: math, science, English and social studies. There are four teachers – one for each of the core subjects.
JuJuan James, 18, said that with four teachers in the room with 50 students, it’s easier to get attention when he needs individual help. That help, the ability to work at his own pace, and the later start to the school day have James hopeful that he will graduate.
“I’m not a morning person,” James said.
Principal Dan Gilfort said the administration also works to be flexible with students who might have a child or ailing parent.
“Most kids don’t grow up wanting to be dropouts,” Gilfort said, “but somewhere their lives got off track. The chance to get a high school diploma from Durham Public Schools is something they really want, and they’re making the most of if.”
The dropout rate for Durham Public Schools is about 3.7 percent.
Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academies are also operating in Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The school’s namesake, former basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson, formed a partnership with EdisonLearning to help operate the Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academies.
“As many as one quarter of our nation’s students are not finishing high school,” he said on the Durham Public Schools’ website. “Our goal is to ensure that no student falls through the cracks, and that all students have the opportunity to receive their high school diplomas and be fully prepared for college or the workplace.”
In Durham, the academy is part of the Performance Learning Center, a nontraditional high school also housed at the Holton Center that offers help for students who are enrolled in high school but struggling in a traditional setting. EdisonLearning covers two-thirds of the instruction costs. Federal money helped set up the academy.
Gilfort, who serves as principal the Performance Learning Center as well as the Magic Johnson Academy, comes from a counseling background. He was serving as assistant principal of Northern High School when the Performance Learning Center was formed and decided he wanted to try something different.
As assistant principal at Northern, he was seeing the same struggling students over and over again, and jumped at the chance to help students in a different setting.
Magic Johnson Academy takes a holistic approach toward its students, according to Program Director Lorenzo Johnson Jr., meeting them where they are academically but pushing them to succeed.
A student who starts with no credits and really pushes hard could finish in two and a half years, he said. It really just depends on how fast each student wants to work. The program is set up so that they can continue to work online at home outside of school hours if they really want to speed up the process.
“Our philosophy is, they’ve been out of school long enough, so they don’t have time for any gaps,” Lorenzo Johnson said.