Experimental school for 'high risk' students helps halt their backward slide

Fifth-grader Carlos, who is just finishing up the school year at Grand Academy in the city's Lower East Side, likes his school because ''you can meet more friends, and there is no fighting.'' He adds that math is his favorite subject, but he also likes reading.

Jose, who also likes math, points out that teachers pay more attention to students here. Grand Academy is ''better than any other school,'' he says.

The boys have spent the last school year in a special program for students who are at least two years behind grade level. Run by the Grand Street Settlement House along with New York City's Board of Education, the two-year-old program has been successful enough to earn funding for an expanded program next year.

Taking ''high risk'' students at the fifth- and eighth-grade level, the staff at Grand Academy hopes to raise school scores (and confidence), break truancy patterns, and prevent future dropouts.

''We remove kids from the local schools, where they have known failure, and bring them here to a positive environment,'' says Lawrence Mandell, executive director of the Grand Street Settlement. The local district sends teachers to the classes held in the settlement house, and the Board of Education contracts with the agency for a range of support services, such as social work, counseling , and after-school programs.

''These kids were chronic truants, some on the verge of dropping out,'' says Mr. Mandell. Now they have an attendence rate of 80 to 85 percent, which is ''excellent in this city.'' Reading scores, an area in which most of these students were losing ground to their peers, have been brought up more than a year in most cases. Carlos, for example, proudly says that his reading scores have gone up to a grade level of 5.9 from 3.8.

Grand Street Settlement spent $125,000 on the program last year, and the Board of Education provided funding of $300,000.

''It is not inexpensive,'' says Yvette Villegas, coordinator of the program for the community school board. But she and Grand Academy staff are quick to point out that ''cheap solutions will mean cheap outcomes.''

In a city with a dropout rate estimated at anywhere from 38 percent to over 60 percent and a high unemployment rate for minority youths, the program is less expensive than welfare or jail, they say.

''We are not miracle people,'' says one teacher at Grand Academy. Much of the improvement among students is phenomenal, he says, but some students still do not make progress. ''The prime thing we can do is help . . . give (the students) the ability to learn. That's what they'll carry away.''

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