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Transition camp gives students hope

ERICA RODRIGUEZ

By ERICA RODRIGUEZ
July 30, 2010 at 2:30 a.m.
Updated July 31, 2010 at 2:31 a.m.

Jesse Valdez, 14, of Crain Middle School, listens to Dedric Turner, a math teacher from C.E. King Middle School in Houston, who came to Victoria to teach at-risk students at the Victoria school district summer transition camp. This year has been important to the school, because it has improved the dropout rate enough for the possibility of it being rated a recognized district.

Teenage students clustered in groups and planned their own set of rules for Victoria this week at the Stroman Middle School.

The rules ranged from lowering the driving age to mandating all residents walk around naked.

"The point of this exercise is to go into a place and look at what is acceptable in that place," said Felepia Lee, who instructed the social skills class of the school district's annual summer transition camp.

The camp, a mix of academic and social skills instruction, is the school district's latest attempt to help struggling students pass to the ninth grade.

About 80 percent of the students in the camp have either failed summer school classes or portions of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. If they complete the eight-day camp, they can pass to the ninth grade.

"We had a decision to come," said Nasari Cuellar, a 15-year-old camper who will be a freshman at Victoria East High School. "I didn't have to come, but I didn't want to be in eighth grade."

Almost 400 students have passed through camp, hosted by the Houston-based Destiny Consulting, in the past three years. If students finish, they are promoted to the ninth grade.

"As long as you have a chance, then the odds are better that the kids won't drop out ...," said Willie Pickens, founder of Destiny Consulting. "Kids, a lot of times, are waiting to give up if they don't have some hope. This gives them hope."

The camp is not the last connection with the students. Throughout the school year, the company contacts students twice a month and tracks their progress for four years. The company also formed two leadership groups for camp alumni.

Pickens travels from Houston to meet with the students and parents up to seven times a month.

"As long as they have a support, then I have a better chance to take hold of them," Pickens said. "My goal is to see them walk across the stage."

The transition is critical because students who don't pass to the eighth grade increased their likelihood of dropping out of high school by as much as 60 percent.

"Data shows that those kids normally drop out because they get frustrated," Pickens said.

Joseph Norman, 17, a Victoria West High School student, was almost one of those students.

"I was giving up on myself, and when I get in this organization, I stopped giving up on myself and believed," he said. "I was passing classes and tests."

Norman, who has returned the past two summers to mentor the incoming classes, now is the president of Young Men Taking Charge, the male leadership group hosted by Destiny.

Norman believes the lack of caring adults affects many of the children's decision to drop out.

"I can see it in their eyes," he said. "They have parents that don't care about them. They can do drugs and gangs get them in trouble."

Nasari believes the camp is helping to prepare her for high school, and has learned social skills. She plans to finish the camp and hopes to be a doctor when she's older.

"Everybody has their dreams," she said. "You never know."

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