Norfolk program gives dropouts hope

Feature news report on Norfolk Magic Johnson Bridgescape

The Virginian Pilot

Norfolk, VA -- Still a high school sophomore at 18, Shalya Lancaster struggled to stay on track to graduate. She juggled day classes at Lake Taylor High School with two night courses at Granby High last year. She still had five of six required state exams to pass. "It was very stressful," she said.

Lancaster wanted to catch up, but she struggled to find the motivation she had before her mother died eight years ago. She fell behind, in part, because of negative peer pressure. "When I got to ninth grade, I thought it was fun skipping school," she said. "So I kept doing the same thing, the same thing every year."

Her attendance and grades plummeted. Being so far behind at the point when most peers are graduating, she planned to drop out. But a counselor told her about the school division's newest program, the Open Campus for dropouts and students who have fallen behind. Lancaster left Lake Taylor and in September began taking online classes at the new school in the Coronado area, on Widgeon Road. Students study on computers in one main lab along with participating in small-group instructional sessions.

On a fast track, Lancaster could earn her eight remaining credits in a year, or a little longer if she runs into any academic snags. Either way, she's now more likely to get a diploma.

The Open Campus has been touted as a graduation game-changer, giving students a second chance to earn diplomas - not just a General Educational Development equivalency certificate - and helping to boost the division's lagging graduation rates.

The program is part of the Transformation Initiative, a divisionwide improvement plan the School Board adopted last year. The division partnered with the private EdisonLearning and Magic Johnson Bridgescape operate the program, though other components add to the cost. The companies operate similar programs throughout the country, though evaluators didn't compare Norfolk's to those.

State Del. Daun Hester, a former teacher and Norfolk City Council member, serves as the school's executive director. Norfolk provides other staff and resources.

The school opened in October 2014, with spots for 100 dropouts and about 25 students considered older than the typical age for their grade levels. With a rolling enrollment, about 200 participated at some point during the year. About 20 graduated in the spring. School leaders haven't set an annual graduation goal.

The program targets students on the fringes, and they come to school with more than academic problems.

Lancaster needed to work to help support herself and her family. She's moved with relatives three times since her mother died. "Eventually, I was like, I'm just tired. I gotta do something with my life. I can't depend on nobody to do nothing for me," she said. "I'm going to just come back to school and just do whatever I have to do, no matter what."

Now she works full time at McDonald's while attending morning or afternoon sessions at the school. She can check out a computer to work on courses at home when needed. Teachers cheer her on when she gets tired or frustrated. "They help you; they're very supportive," she said.

Lancaster's experiences echo program successes outlined in an evaluation compiled by Old Dominion University researchers. The School Board recently discussed the findings, which showed promising data about helping vulnerable students. But the school also faced difficulties in its first year.

There were fights and other discipline problems, and on-site attendance hovered around 40 percent. The division chose novice teachers to instruct some of its most challenged students. Most teachers of the program's core content - English, math, science and social studies - had less than three years' experience. Although the program provides online courses, the teachers felt the students could benefit from more direct, small-group instruction, according to the report.

Teachers generally spoke favorably about their experiences but said they could benefit from more training and professional support. On any given day, they teach various topics across grade levels. The program could use more teachers, especially to help with reading, the report said.

Many students struggle to read beyond an elementary level, according to the report. The majority of students came in classified as sophomores, while others just needed to pass the Standards of Learning exams required to graduate. The school noted over-age students passed only one SOL exam, and school leaders plan to explore other options for those students.

Open Campus students face significant family and social hardships, including incarceration, homelessness, children and financial difficulties.

A host of support services contribute to students' success, the report said. Teachers facilitate advisory groups, community partners provide job opportunities and parenting and prenatal resources, and the division helps with transportation among other things not usually offered in an alternative education setting.

Some students still struggle to make it to school despite the support. Hester will track down wayward students in their neighborhoods or on their jobs. They still need guidance even though they're young adults, she said. "I see the kids' needs," she said. "They want to be successful. They don't, maybe, necessarily know how."

Hester acknowledged the difficulty in leading a school and serving as a state delegate. She'll be gone when the General Assembly convenes in mid-January through mid-March. She won't get paid while she's away. "The foundation is set before I go, and the expectations they know," she said.

At Open Campus, students take two courses at a time and complete at least 10 online lessons each day. But there is no specific time frame for students to graduate, just that it occurs before they "age out" of public school at 20, depending on their classification. The option of earning a diploma - compared with a GED - motivated students to attend the program, the report said.

Statistical credit when they do graduate goes to their "home" school, the one they were assigned to before attending Open Campus. That's because the state Education Department considers Open Campus a program, not a separate school. That arrangement is not uncommon in Norfolk or the state but has raised questions about accountability because schools get credit for students not enrolled in them.

Along with highlighting successes, the evaluators made several recommendations, including better recruitment and identification efforts, more scheduling options and on-site child care to boost attendance, teacher training and interactive learning. The program also connects students with college and career opportunities once they graduate.

Elizabeth Rice, who needed 10 credits when she enrolled, finished the program and plans to take part in a graduation ceremony later this year. Rice said she doesn't think she could have earned a diploma without Open Campus. "I struggled a lot in high school," she said.

Rice plans to attend Tidewater Community College, where she earned a scholarship. She wants to study nursing and psychology. Of all the things to be happy about, she's most proud to be "finally seeing myself doing something good for my life."

Division leaders have discussed expanding the program while focusing on the problems that contribute to the dropout rate in the first place. It's too early to tell whether the program is the most effective way to achieve academic and graduation goals for vulnerable students, they said.

For now, they're taking it one student at a time.


Independent Study Cites Positive Outcomes of MJBA Program in Norfolk

Norfolk MJBA Study

The Norfolk (VA) Public School Board commissioned an independent study of the District’s Open Campus / Magic Johnson Bridgescape Program.  The report, conducted by Old Dominion University’s Darden College of Education, and the Center for Educational Partnerships determined that “overall the program is a success.”

Below are key findings from the Formative Evaluation of the Norfolk Public Schools’ Open Campus High School Program:

  • The Norfolk Public Schools’ Open Campus High School (OCHS) program is intended to assist school drop-outs and overage-for-grade students earn a regular high school diploma in an alternative setting.
  • OCHS offers two half-day sessions per day, during which students primarily participate in the Magic Johnson Bridgescape program, which provides computer-mediated and small group instruction. The Norfolk program is unique among its counterparts nationally in that the Bridgescape programs in other cities do not serve overage-for-grade students.
  • The program provides a caring and supportive environment for students.
  • Over 90% of students reported that they like attending OCHS, respect their teachers, and believe that their teachers care about them.
  • The program was clearly most successful in serving students who were fairly close to achieving graduation at the time they dropped out of school. The students were also more motivated to engage in the program as evidenced by higher lesson completion rates.
  • The core program model is responsive to the needs of the students being served.
  • Students were motivated to enroll in the program for a number of reasons.
  1. They clearly desired a regular high school diploma versus other alternatives such as a GED.
  2. They strongly valued being able to work at their own pace, getting 1:1 assistance from teachers, flexible scheduling, and being able to see their own progress.
  3. Students mentioned community-based recruitment, program publicity on local news, and family encouragement as factors that influenced their decision to enroll.
  • Individualization of learning and program structure provided important and effective supports for students. Self-pacing, intensive academic support from teachers, scaffolded curricula, careful progress monitoring, and selective curricular focus were identified as effective strategies for individualizing learning.
  • Helpful structural elements included flexible scheduling, a small environment, and provision of wrap-around services. Students exhibited positive self-expectations, including a strong expectation that they could indeed graduate and positive and realistic perceptions of their own progress in the program.


Report: Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy is a success

News Report on Success of Norfolk MJBA

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Norfolk Public School board members got the results of a study done on one of its new schools. The Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy, also known as the open campus opened a year ago. It was created to increase the division’s high school graduation rate.

On Wednesday night, the board reviewed the nearly 100 page report that outlined the school’s successes and needs for improvement. The report, done by an independent agency, shows that overall the program is a success. However, there are some problems like combining students who are over age for grade and students that have already dropped out of school. School leaders say the findings will help them make future changes.

The open campus is already in its second year and it’s director says the program is needed. “It’s a great year. The year that started, it has started off well with 150 students and a waiting list,” said Director Daun Hester. “Students are excited and we are excited about having them.”

Interim Superintendent Dr. Michael Thornton says the school will continue to be funded in this budget.


Superintendents from Urban Districts Learn About Magic Johnson Bridgescape

EdisonLearning Hosts Reception for Superintendents at Council for the Great City Schools Conference

Dr. Tommy Chang (l), Superintendant of the Boston Public Schools talks with Emeka Nti (r) and Curtiss Stancil (center) of EdisonLearning in the above photo.

At the Council of the Great City Schools conference on October 10, 2015, in Long Beach, CA, superintendants from the nation's largest urban school districts learned abou how the Magic Johnson Bridgescape program can help reduce the graduation gap in their districts. Members of EdisonLearning's Sales team, and Thom Jackson, plus Chris Morrow of Magic Johnson Enterprises talked with the district leaders from Boston, Portland, Cleveland, Charlotte NC, Jackson MS, and Memphis TN at a special reception hosted by EdisonLearning.


New Leader for Provost Academy Ohio

Chaundria Smith Named Executive Director of State-wide Online School Serving Grades 6-12


Chaundria Smith, a successful educator with more than a decade of experience as a teacher, assistant principal, college professor, and school principal has been named Executive Director of Provost Academy Ohio.

“My career as an educator has shown me that the traditional school setting does not meet the needs of all students.  For this reason, at Provost Academy Ohio we will pride ourselves on educating the ‘whole child’ through an online learning environment, as well as on-going mentoring and advising to ensure students receive the personalized attention they deserve,” Executive Director Smith said.

Prior to taking on her new role, Executive Director Smith was serving as a Director of Achievement for EdisonLearning in Cleveland.  Previously, she was Principal of the Meridian Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., an Assistant Principal in the Hampton (Virginia) City Schools, and a Teacher and Department Chair in the Norfolk (Virginia) Public Schools.  Since 2013, she has served as an Adjunct Professor at Tidewater Community College in Chesapeake, Virginia.

Executive Director Smith has been recognized as the “Virginia Teacher of Promise”, and was the Norfolk Public Schools “Inspiration Award Winner” in Career & Technical Education.

She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Education from Norfolk State University in Virginia; a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from Regent University in Virginia; and is currently completing her Doctor of Education in Advanced Educational Leadership from Regent University.  She is also certified as an International Baccalaureate Head of School, Certified Data Team Leader, and Certified Mentor.

“Today’s students learn much differently today than they did in the past,” students did just ten years ago,” Executive Director Smith said;  “and students are clearly benefitting from an education, like the one they receive at Provost Academy, that utilizes stimulating virtual curriculum designed specifically for them.”

In contrast to other online learning programs, Provost Academy Ohio offers a robust, state-of-the-art curriculum with a strong base in math, science and technology, designed to be engaging, fun and targeted to multiple learning style.  All courses can be adapted to fit a student’s individual needs, and content can be rearranged and customized for the individual student. Also, parents and students can easily monitor learning progress, assignments, and grades at a glance on their own personal home page. 

Interested students in grades 6 through 12 can enroll in Provost Academy Ohio for the school year starting this fall online at or by phone at 888-262-1052.