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Pinellas eyes single-gender program for at-risk boys

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Published:   |   Updated: July 31, 2014 at 10:16 AM

— Pinellas County school officials are looking at a new state pilot program to help at-risk young men turn their lives around by eliminating daily distractions — mainly, girls.

School district officials are hoping the single-gender approach that has succeeded at the PACE Center for Girls’ dropout prevention program also will work in a school for boys.

The school district would expand its contract with AMIkids Pinellas, a nonprofit organization for troubled students, to create an all-male dropout prevention site next school year, Superintendent Michael Grego said.

To start, the program would host about 44 boys at the Science Center of Pinellas, 7701 22nd Ave. N., which will remain open to school groups and the public. This year the legislature gave AMIkids Pinellas additional funding to expand dropout prevention programs in Pinellas, which include PACE.

The boys school would be a pilot program run with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, and cost about $750,000 a year for five years, Area 4 Superintendent Barbara Hires said. As with an alternative school, students in grades 6 through 8 would attend the voluntary program for 230 days to complete their coursework while also participating in behavior counseling programs.

“We would look at the early-warning systems we already have in place to refer students that are overaged, have numerous discipline referrals or suspensions, have academic concerns, attendance issues, aggressive or violent behaviors at home or in school,” Hires said. “We’ll look for prior arrests or expulsions or anyone who’s a runaway or has the potential to become a runaway.”

Students may need anger management or substance abuse counseling, said Michelle Topping, the district’s new director of Dropout Prevention. Not only would the students receive counseling services through the AMIkids program, but entire families also could receive counseling with referrals to other outside agencies.

In addition to classroom education, the students would participate in events with other AMIkids groups, take field trips to Tallahassee to meet with legislators, explore different career paths and take part in community service projects.

After a student’s year in the program is up, he would return to his regular school unless their counselors think he could benefit from another year, Topping said. The students would use a computer-based classroom curricula by Pearson that also will be used throughout the school district.

AMIkids would hire its own certified teachers to staff the school. Pinellas County would provide additional support, such as tracking students to ensure they don’t fall behind.

Though the contract is being negotiated to be finalized with the school district’s attorney, Hires said it would be a “win-win” for both parties.

“I’ve voiced my concerns about these kids missing 21 to 61 days of school, and I think this is a wonderful opportunity to help our male students just like we help our young ladies,” said school board member Rene Flowers, former chairwoman of AMIkids Pinellas before she was elected to the school board. “I really love the PACE Center for Girls and the way they work with those students, where this is kind of their last shot and they have tremendous turnarounds. ... We’re always hearing similar stories about our young males, but they don’t have anything like that.”

Male middle school students, the group that would be recruited for the pilot program, fell behind their female peers in Pinellas on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests in reading for the 2012-13 school year, the latest year state demographic data is available. Only 41 percent of eighth-grade males passed the reading portion of the test, compared to 61 percent of females.

Since its creation in 1997, the PACE program has served more than 3,000 girls, and girls’ scores and graduation rates have increased steadily in he county. Female graduation rates were around 70 percent in 2010. But in 2013, the female high school graduation rate in the county was about 78 percent, while the male graduation rate was 66 percent.

School officials have identified more than 100 students as potential candidates for the pilot program, Hires said.

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