ETON — Ninth-grader C.J. Smith enjoys school now, but last year he struggled academically, posting standardized test scores just low enough to land him in a special purpose school designed to get students back on track.

“I like the teaching methods,” Smith said of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Academy housed in the Mountain Creek Academy building in Eton. “I think I’m doing better this year ... They actually explain it to us, how to do (the lessons).”

The STEM Academy began this fall and is funded with a $940,000 federal grant dispersed over three years. It pays for new technology, teacher training and a couple more jobs. A much larger amount was awarded to the Georgia Department of Education, which then selected recipient school systems that had plans for career and technology oriented schools and academies. Whitfield County Schools received a similar $2.6 million grant for the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy, formerly the Whitfield Career Academy, earlier in the school year.

Murray County Schools now sends eighth-graders who scored below average on their Criterion Referenced Competency Tests, the standardized curriculum assessments, to the STEM Academy for more targeted instruction. Teachers work with students in small groups. Boys have separate classes from girls. All students have digital tablets that allow them to connect to the Internet. Their classes center on the STEM subjects, or at least incorporate them in some way.

Principal Paula Martin said educators are looking for any way they can to help students who have fallen behind or are in danger of doing so. Research, she said, shows students generally do better in school when they have small, gender-based classes, have access to technology and are given extra attention.

“Any of that stuff we can try to do, we’re trying,” she said. “This hasn’t been done before. We’re the first ones to come at it from this perspective.”

The school serves 42 students, and, even though they’re in ninth grade, their lessons also review eighth-grade concepts to ensure they understand them before moving on. Martin said officials hope to expand the school next year to include sophomores who choose to stay there.

Students had mixed reactions about the Academy. Bridgete McDaniel said it’s definitely a better learning environment than what she had last year, and she understands the work she’s assigned or knows where to find help when she doesn’t.

“I like to do all of (the subjects) because I just love to do school,” McDaniel said, “and I want to be able to reach my goals when I get older. I’m not a technology person, but I get through it and I do good in it. But my favorite subject is math.”

It’s nice to not have immature boys making trouble while you’re trying to learn, she said, but spending the day in a room full of girls carries its own problems and “drama.” Students do get some free time to socialize with those of the opposite sex, and they see each other at times other than in regular classes.

Martin said she believes the gender-based classes have been especially effective for girls, who are sometimes intimidated or uneasy speaking in a class with boys.

Some researchers contend single-sex education actually helps boys even more than girls. Education researcher Leonard Sax argues in his book “Boys Adrift” that single-sex settings can provide an environment in which boys are more free, for example, to write in ways girls often don’t choose. Other researchers say some girl-shy boys aren’t as likely to learn speak out when girls are present.

According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, certain social problems for both boys and girls are less those educated in single-sex settings than for coeds. Girls are less likely to become pregnant, according to research the organization cited, and boys tend to be more mature and better adjusted when they are around girls.

Smith said he’s certainly learning a lot this year.

“I didn’t used to be good in math, but now I’m really getting into it,” he said.

While Smith and McDaniel said they plan to go to North Murray High School after they finish their freshman year at STEM Academy, Austin Woodard said he plans to stay for another year. His math teacher goes slowly and does a good job explaining the lessons, he said.

“I just like the school, and it’s a great school to be in,” he said.

All three students said they’re thinking of entering the Marines after high school.

There are six teachers designated for the STEM Academy, and there are two career pathways — criminal justice and public safety. Martin said the school is working with Georgia Northwestern Technical College to have each student take a dual enrollment class at the Whitfield-Murray campus next year.

The agreement will give students a leg up in the job market, she said, and it will also show them a college education can be theirs if they want it.

“I remember when I was in high school, I thought college was just something Einsteins did,” Martin said.

English teacher Jennifer Weninger said her classes incorporate technology by doing many of their lessons on the tablets.

“They’re using the technology that they will use in the real world,” she said. “I can remember using the card catalogue in the library, and they’re saying ‘You mean they just didn’t Google it?’”

Math teacher Joan Davis said many of the students she works with have been “placed” to the next grade, that is, advanced even though they didn’t quite meet the usual testing requirements to show they understood the material. Things would have only gotten worse if they had been placed into a regular high school, she said.

“I know in the math area, they would have struggled,” she said.

While the Academy is small, educators are working to give it the feel of a regular school. They began a student council this year, complete with elections, and they’re discussing ways to add in low-cost athletics. The vision, Murray County Schools Director of Secondary Education Cheryl Thomasson said, is to extend the Academy to four years, but officials won’t know for a couple of days whether or not it will happen.

Thomasson said the idea for a STEM Academy was born when administrators realized they couldn’t just keep sending students with low CRCT scores on to ninth grade with no extra help. Most, she said, continue to struggle through high school. Many drop out, and those who don’t often become frustrated and disruptive.

“If you don’t do something different (for them), then there’s not going to be a different outcome,” Thomasson said. “They’ll actually be more successful (when they return to their regular high schools) because they’re getting that specialized instruction.”

Mountain Creek Academy has been the school system’s alternative school for many years. It serves students who were sent there because of behavior problems, but there are also many students who choose to attend Mountain Creek over a larger high school setting. It has been a temporary home to English language learners, and there are others who go there because the work-at-your-own-pace scheduling allows them to graduate sooner than they otherwise would. It just made sense to place this alternative program at the alternative school, Thomasson said.

She noted the school system hopes to make renovations and repairs to the school within the next few years.

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