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Franklin hopes academy overhaul will mean more graduates

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By the end of the summer, a revamped alternative academy at Franklin Community High School might have its highest number of graduates ever.

So far this year, 30 people have earned diplomas through Franklin Academy, formerly known as Finish Strong.

And that number could rise to as high as 70 by the end of the summer.

Between 2010 and 2013, about 170 students graduated from Finish Strong, which allowed current and former students from Franklin and other high schools to earn diplomas by completing courses online. But between 1,000 and 1,500 students were enrolled in the program during that time, and school officials thought the number of graduates should be higher.

So the high school cut the number of full-time students in the program in half, from 350 students last year to 180. The program also has more staff. Alternative education coordinator Dawn Geisler runs the program, which now has a full-time math teacher and a full-time English teacher.

Fewer full-time students and more staff mean Geisler can ensure more students graduate from Franklin Academy. She also has more time to work with the high school’s guidance counselors and teachers to find students who will have a better chance at finishing high school if they join the academy full or part time.

Traditional Franklin students who failed or who want to earn a better grade in a class also can take the online courses, and so far this school year 25 percent of Franklin’s roughly 420 seniors have taken a course at the academy, Geisler said.

Making the grade

Franklin Academy has seats for 180 students from all school districts who are returning to high school or are trying to graduate on time. Here’s how that breaks down:

  • 30 spots, Sophomores
  • 50 spots, Juniors
  • 100 spots, Seniors, returning students

“That’s a big change from before,” she said. “They just didn’t have the resources to do that, the manpower.”

Franklin officials hope that fewer Franklin students will drop out of high school if Geisler finds and enrolls them in the program and watches to ensure they complete the work for their diploma.

Last year, 93 percent of Franklin’s seniors graduated on time, the highest the graduation rate in years. Principal Doug Harter said he believed Franklin Academy would ensure more seniors graduated on time, and this summer Geisler will work with administrators to review data from the current school year.

Specifically, she wants to know what aspects of Franklin Academy were the most helpful to students who graduated. She also wants to know why students who didn’t finish the program left and what changes can be made to ensure all students who join the academy leave with a diploma.

When Finish Strong had 350 students enrolled, that made it impossible for then-director Leighton Turner to track students and ensure they were completing the courses they needed to graduate. Turner retired at the end of last school year. Geisler took over. She previously was one of two teachers who ran Franklin’s LAUNCH program, which targets freshmen and sophomores in danger of dropping out because of behavioral or academic problems.

Franklin schools had to cut 18 teaching positions this school year to help ensure the school district could continue to make its annual debt payments, and right now that means the high school can afford to have only one teacher running LAUNCH, which now has 15 freshmen and sophomores, Geisler said. But Geisler hopes having a larger staff at the academy will make it easier to find students who would benefit from taking the online courses.

“We’re still stopping a group of kids from digging a big hole at the start of high school,” she said.

Geisler added she can focus on finding more students for the program because the other two teachers work with students who get stuck on assignments. The academy’s math and English teachers have created activities and workshops specifically for students in the program to help prepare them for the Algebra I and English 10 end-of-course assessments that students have to pass to graduate.

Cutting the number of full-time students by half also makes it easier for Geisler and teachers to see who is and isn’t finishing their work on time, which is why the high school wants to keep that number at or close to 180.

Franklin Academy students who are or should still be in high school must spend at least three hours each day at the high school, completing work. Academy students who are older than 18 don’t have to check in every day, but Geisler checks regularly to see if they’re finishing assignments.

If students fall behind, Geisler and the teachers will work to help catch them up. But if the students consistently fail to follow the schedule the teachers have set, they’ll be asked to leave the program.

“There comes a point where you have to decide if this program is the best route to get your high school education,” Geisler said.

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