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VISD working to keep kids in school

By APRILL BRANDON
Aug. 3, 2009 at 3:03 a.m.
Updated Aug. 4, 2009 at 3:04 a.m.


PROGRAM GRADUATION

Destination Success will hold graduation for the students enrolled in the summer program on Thursday. The ceremonies are set for 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. at the Memorial High School-Stroman campus.

Mia Mendoza, 15, wants to be a nurse someday. Akeyla Ramey, 14, wants to be a doctor. Ian Less, 15, wants to get a business degree.

If Willie Pickens has anything to do with it, all three of them will accomplish their dreams.

Pickens, the founder of Houston company Destiny Consulting, is in charge of the Destination Success program at the Victoria school district. The program helps eighth-graders transition into their first year of high school and provides year-round support for the students in an effort to keep kids in school.

Throughout the summer portion of the program, which ends Thursday, students like Mia, Akeyla and Ian learn academic strategies in math and science and social skill development, but it's the approach of the program's staff that is having the biggest effect on the students.

"They don't automatically judge you on your looks and you feel more comfortable around them," Mia said. "As soon as you walk in, they aren't telling you to sit down and open up your book. They ask questions about you. They want to get to know you. You bond with them."

With student dropout rates leading to an academically unacceptable rating for the Victoria school district last week, the Destination Success program is one way the district is tackling the issue, Susan Johnson, special populations coordinator for the district, said.

Memorial High School failed to meet the state standard of a 75 percent completion rate for economically disadvantaged students this year, although the district is trying to appeal their rating using data on specific students who were counted as drop-outs in error.

"It's important for kids to get the things they need and start off high school on the right foot," Johnson said. "The program gets kids thinking about their future and what they want to do after they graduate. What Mr. Pickens does is provide these kids with a safe place to ask questions."

The key to helping students become successful and stay in school is giving them a support system, Pickens, a 30-year education veteran, said. As such, each of the 176 students picked to be in Destination Success will get personal phone calls and regular visits from Pickens and his staff throughout the school year, as will the students' parents.

"I applaud the district for being proactive about this. This time is critical for teens. They are maturing physically, emotionally and mentally, just getting started on their career path and more is at stake now," he said. "Fostering relationships has been proven to help keep kids in school, especially when you reach out to them before they hit 16 and can drop out. We have to get back to the little things, like caring about students, to keep our kids in school."

As a part of that, Pickens also focuses on meeting the students' basic needs, such as food, clothing and emotional well-being, he said.

"If you're hungry, does math mean anything to you? If you just watched your mom get beat up, do you care about English class? That's why I make sure these students are taken care of and have a support system around them," he said. "You need to make them feel good. You need to make sure they know someone cares about them."

Akelya agreed, saying that many times students drop out because they simply don't think they are good enough.

"If you think you're no good and you have no future, why would you go to school?" she said.

This is the second year for the program in the Victoria school district. The first year was so successful, with 128 students out of the 130 in the program still enrolled, that Pickens has added two new programs, one for boys and one for girls, during the school year that are an extension of the original Destination Success.

The new programs, which are open to freshmen and sophomores, includes activities, such as community service, and gives students who aren't in athletics or other organizations, something to belong to, Pickens said.

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