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More staff needed for growing alternative degree program

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The online alternative program at Franklin Community High School doesn’t have enough teachers to keep up with its students.

Franklin started the program, called Finish Strong, three years ago for current and former students in Johnson County who wanted to earn their high school diploma outside traditional classrooms.

Participants include parents, full-time workers and those who can’t focus in 25-student classes.

They complete the work leading up to the exams on their own time anywhere they can find an Internet connection.

Currently, more than 350 students are enrolled, and program director Leighton Turner said that between 1,000 to 1,500 students have enrolled in the program since it started in 2010.

As of June, 149 students had earned a diploma through the program, and Turner expects another 20 to 25 students to graduate by the end of the school year.

A graduation rate of 10 to 15 percent is low, he said. And he thinks that rate would increase if teachers regularly tracked how often Finish Strong students logged on to the courses and encouraged them to finish.

School officials agree and plan to add two teachers to the program to help with contacting students who haven’t logged on to their courses recently or who might need encouragement to finish those final few credits — work that Turner doesn’t have time to do.

But Turner and his wife, Sheila, who assists him in running the program, spend almost all of their time filling out paperwork and online registrations for new students, administering tests and teaching students trying to understand geometry or English. They don’t have the time needed to track students’ progress once they’re enrolled.

That’s why one student set on earning a diploma can complete 25 high school credits within a year, while others just three credits short of graduation can still lack those three credits a year later, Turner said.

“The more numbers you have, the more of a supervisory nightmare it becomes. My main concern is we don’t have a way of monitoring and encouraging and bringing students along,” Turner said.

Franklin Community High School Principal Doug Harter said Finish Strong is essential to improving the high school’s graduation rate, which went from about 85 percent in 2011 to about 88 percent in 2012.

The program gives students who have fallen behind a chance to catch up and graduate on time. That’s why he plans to reorganize staff within the high school so that the Turners will have more help following up with students.

Harter wants the two teachers overseeing Franklin’s Launch program, an alternative program for freshman and sophomores at risk for falling behind in their courses, to start working with Finish Strong. Those teachers would track how regularly students complete assignments and courses and to call students or the parents of students who are falling behind, Harter said.

“It’s just keeping on them. I feel if we’re able to do that kids will earn more credits, and then they’ll be able to graduate,” Harter said.

Until recently Finish Strong’s overall impact on Franklin’s graduation rate was mixed. The program is open to any current or returning high school student in the county. But returning students who had already dropped out of high school once and who didn’t complete the program counted against Franklin’s graduation rate, Harter said.

He argued that students who already have dropped out of high school shouldn’t be labeled as dropouts a second time. In October, Franklin reached an agreement with the Indiana Department of Education specifying that returning students no longer would count for or against the high school’s graduation rate, Harter said.

Turner enrolls an average of about five new students in the program each week, many of whom heard about Finish Strong through guidance counselors, friends or parents. But the students don’t all believe that earning their high school diploma is even possible. Often they fell behind or left their traditional high school courses because they became overwhelmed or didn’t think they could complete them.

Currently, Turner has no way of regularly encouraging those students to keep working.

He said he believes more teachers working with the program will be able to provide more encouragement to students. And that could mean a drop in the number of students who leave the program without a diploma, he said.

“I would love to know how many of those folks only needed two, three or four credits,” Turner said.

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