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Believers Academy: School’s graduation rate belies its success

When 2017 statewide graduation numbers were reported this month, Believers Academy celebrated rather than lamented its 21 percent graduation rate.

Granted, that 21 percent falls well below the district’s average of 85 percent, and is even low for charter schools, which on average saw a 50 percent rate. But that’s because Believers Academy is not a traditional school.

It takes students who have failed in traditional schools. Founding principal Lori Dyer and co-founder Mark Manners make it their jobs to catch them as they fall into the cracks of public education.

All high school age, most students come to Believers Academy reading somewhere between a fourth- and eighth-grade level, Dyer said. A GPA of 1.3 isn’t uncommon. While Believers got credit for only six of its students graduating, the number of students who actually earned diplomas was higher – 20.

“Lori’s school is different. They’re an alternative school dealing with a unique enrollment,” said Jim Pegg, director of charter schools for the Palm Beach County School District. “She’s never going to get the data credit she deserves.”

“I built a school to make a difference. All of our kids will have had a job or be employed when they graduate,” Dyer said. “Over the last 12 years, over all of our graduates, at least 91 percent are still gainfully employed.”

The success was built after witnessing failure from their teaching jobs at Howell Watkins Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens.

Too often Dyer and Manners got their middle school students, despite a multitude of learning disabilities and behavioral disorders, to the finish line of eighth grade only to learn that those same students gave up and dropped out just months into high school.

Rather than be demoralized, the two hashed out a plan over Dyer’s dining room table to get those kids to the starting line of the rest of their lives – with a job, a diploma, or both.

It took a year, but by 2005 they had borrowed some money ($75,000), applied for a state grant ($300,000), rented a warehouse and scrounged together some furniture to open Believers Academy charter school off 45th Street just east of Interstate 95.

The easy part? Knocking on doors in Riviera Beach to entice about 40 of their former students to return to the classroom.

An early charter school

Back then Believers Academy was one of only a handful of charter schools.

At first, the academy aimed to remediate and return students to their home high school. Later, the mission was tweaked to keep the students and help them land what was called an “option 2” diploma, suitable for kids who demonstrated life and vocational skills that made them employable, and less bent on state tests to meet academic standards in classes including Algebra 1 needed for a traditional diploma.

The education landscape has changed since then. About one in every 10 Palm Beach County students attends a charter school; there are dozens of them. And the only diploma the state offers is for hitting the academic benchmarks of high school.

The state tracks and rewards schools that graduate students in four years, but Believers Academy students sometimes need five or six.

The more fair graduate comparison would be to the district’s 12 alternative schools, only half of which had enough students within what is known as the four-year cohort to count. The graduation rates posted by four of those schools were in the single digits; two others hit 41 percent and 48 percent, respectively.

This year, Dyer expects to see 30 students graduate; 14 of them will graduate on time and be counted by the state.

“The biggest thing is that we’re making them successful, productive citizens,” Dyer said.

Practicing career skills

Dyer counts D’Ongelo Jones, 19, as one of those success stories.

Jones says, “I didn’t like school.” In fact, he fought in school, was in trouble with the law and wasn’t able to read when he arrived at the school nearly six years ago, Dyer said. Now Jones works at Publix, and the academy is working with him to choose and apply for cosmetology school.

“I want to own my own hair cutting business,” Jones said.

To get Jones and others where they need to be, students spend three hours a day on reading and writing and two hours a day on math. They’re grouped by ability rather than grade. They get specialized vocational training as well.

“These kids don’t generalize well. They can’t look at their strengths and see what careers may suit them,” Dyer said. So the school gives them tastes of different fields in 10- to 20-day chunks in which they work on skills applicable to more than 60 careers.

They don’t just talk about what paramedics and nurses do; they practice skills like bandaging. And when they’ve completed the circuit, they talk about what they liked and what they were good at, Dyer said.

The school has 15 teachers and two consultants. Their classes run from eight students to 16.

This year, Believers Academy is piloting a transition to school or work program – already three students are in college and seven are working jobs, Dyer reports.

Those still working the program were practicing their job interview skills this month. Some are painfully shy. Others are stumped by simple questions like, “What are your hobbies?”

Dyer said this awkwardness comes from a combination of disabilities and a deficit in life experiences – another thing the school aims to correct by hosting social events including game nights and “tailgate parties,” which are scripted and organized to give students opportunities to build a social resume of sorts.

As much as they work on academics, they work on attitudes. Dyer wants to build confidence and independence.

The school has even dialed back on its growing enrollment, dropping from 140 to 110 over the past year in order to give students more individual attention.

“We’re not about drawing in the most money, but being able to provide the services,” said Melissa Smith, president of the school’s governing board and a Palm Beach Gardens attorney. Smith played volleyball with Dyer on the weekends and was drawn into the education sphere by Dyer’s passion.

“We were friends and she would talk about the struggles she was having teaching special education in middle school. She wanted to give them meaningful educational opportunities – given them the skills to be successful,” Smith said. “She’s very passionate about what she does.”

With a background in high school and college athletics, Dyer is assertive and brazenly optimistic.

Her classrooms are carved from office and storage space. “I don’t want it to look like a school They weren’t successful in school.”

The boys are dressed in buttoned shirts and ties. The girls in shirts and slacks.

“I wouldn’t call her a kid whisperer or anything, but Lori has this way of talking to them. She doesn’t coddle them. She truly coaches them. Gives them tough love,” Pegg said. “She couldn’t do that with a big operation. If it was about dollars for Lori, she’d have twice as many kids – she could easily find them – but she wouldn’t be as effective. So instead, she works on a very tight budget. Lori has captured the true meaning of being a charter school, giving them something they wouldn’t have from the traditional system.”

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