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A safety net for would-be dropouts State program keeps at-risk students in the classroom


It would have been easy for Jeffrey S. Woodard to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

The junior at Edgewood High School was considered at risk for dropping out of high school because of a history of poor grades and poor attendance.

But an innovative, statewide dropout prevention program, called Maryland's Tomorrow, has kept Jeffrey in school and helped him target long-term goals to work toward. Now he's determined to graduate next year and enroll in college.

Jeffrey was honored Thursday night an awards dinner sponsored by Gov. William Donald Schaefer as Harford County's "bright star" in the program this school year -- the student showing the most improvement in the county's Maryland's Tomorrow program.

The program identifies middle school students entering ninth grade who are considered candidates to drop out of high school.

Dave Myers, a Maryland's Tomorrow teacher at Edgewood High, said school officials target students who have poor attendance records and poor grades.

The program operates at six Harford high schools: Aberdeen, Edgewood, Havre de Grace, Joppatowne, Harford Technical and North Harford.

Classes are small so teachers can provide a key ingredient: personal attention. For example, 20 Edgewood students will be admitted to next year's program.

The goals are: get each student to graduate from high school and then to immediately either get a job, go to a technical

school or college, or join the armed forces, he said.

The program attempts to keep students in school through intensive instruction in basic education, like math and English.

Myers, who shifted from his regular classroom teaching position this year into the Maryland's Tomorrow program, says, "To me the most important things is that I am able to give these students more individual attention. The average class size [in the high school] is about 32 or 33 students. I have 10 to 12 students in a [Maryland's Tomorrow] class."

He teaches four Maryland's Tomorrow classes each day, instead of the six classes he taught in his former post. Students attend a Maryland's Tomorrow class each day in addition to regular classes.

Myers says a lot of his time is aimed at teaching students how to solve problems. "I help them clarify their decisions but they are ultimately responsible."

To succeed in the program, students must decide that they want to work hard -- sometimes harder than they have ever worked in their lives, Jeffrey, the county's "bright star," said at a breakfast Thursday morning.

The breakfast, at Edgewood High, was attended by a group of eighth-graders and some of their parents who had been invited to consider enrolling in the Maryland's Tomorrow program.

"Before the program, I was chronically not in school or getting in trouble for leaving school early. My parents left before I did in the morning and I was the only one there so I would stay at home. I thought it was the 'in' thing to do," he said.

For Woodward, it was sometimes discouraging to be older than most students in his classes. But, for the first time ever, school became "the most important thing in my life," he says.

Woodard said he was encouraged to stay in school by his older brother, who had dropped out.

"He would call me and tell me that the real world is not as easy as you think, he told me that without a diploma there is not much you can do," Woodard said.

Woodard has joined the U.S. Army Reserve and is headed to boot camp next month. He said once he graduates from high school the Army will teach him how to repair high-tech machines, including diesel engines.

Ultimately, he wants to go to college to study drafting or engineering graphics.

Woodard said one of the best lessons he learned in Maryland's Tomorrow program came from a summer job the program landed for him at a fast-food restaurant.

The minimum-wage job was an eye-opener, he says, showing him how few his employment choices might be if he dropped out.

Harford students in Maryland's Tomorrow, sponsored by the state and the Susquehanna Region Private Industry Council Inc., an organization that includes local businesses, are guaranteed a job when they graduate.

But to land the guarantee they must, during their junior and senior years, have an attendance rate of at least 95 percent and maintain a minimum grade average of C+, Myers said.

Edgewood was the first school in the county to offer the Maryland's Tomorrow program when it was started statewide in 1988.

Program administrators are tracking graduates of the programs for five years after high school to determine its success.

Statewide, the program has 8,000 students in 78 high schools this year, up from 3,000 students in 1988.

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