Performance Learning Center gives a second chance

By Leah Campbell
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE

Rashaud Trice’s high school diploma may look the same as anyone else’s, but his path to graduation was undoubtedly different.

After spending almost four years at the Durham School of the Arts and barely managing sophomore status, Trice’s guidance counselor called for an academic intervention.

Rashaud Trice poses in front of the learning center's new location. He graduated from the old Northgate Mall site over a year ago.

“I was flunking out without really realizing it,” 20-year-old Durham native Trice said. “I was so concerned with being Mr. Popular, you know? And that came so easily. I felt like I was succeeding when I wasn’t at all.”

The intervention came in the form of the Durham Performance Learning Center, a national initiative with Communities in Schools.  CIS is an organization committed to helping young people achieve academically, turn away from violence, graduate and prepare for life after academics.

According to the school’s brochure, the Durham Performance Learning Center aims to help students who prefer a nontraditional high school setting, are self-motivated and want to graduate quickly. It is an ideal setting for teenagers at high risk of dropping out. Many students at the center have academic skills but are behind on their course credits because of non-academic challenges.

The brochure went on to note that center hopefuls must have passed the eighth grade mathematics and reading end-of-grade tests, both parts of the computer skills exam and been enrolled in high school for at least a year. Most students come to the center between the ages of 16 and 20.

Many students, like Trice, said that without the center they would not have been able to get their high school diploma.

“I would have aged out of traditional high school way before finishing my course of study,” Trice said.  “Without the center I’d be in an adult education program still pushing for my diploma at age 20. Instead, I’m at Durham Tech. I would have never taken that initiative without PLC.”

The Durham Performance Learning Center opened in 2007 in the basement of Northgate Mall, but is now located at 401 N. Driver St. in Durham on the third floor of the Holton Career and Resource Center. It is one of 40 performance learning centers in the United States – five of which are in North Carolina. Each center works hand in hand with the public school system, which funds the project, to deal with applications, enrollment and staffing.

The new Driver Street facility was made possible after a $17 million refurbishment of the former Holton Middle School. The renovations, completed in time for the 2010 school year, moved students into a more conducive learning environment than the center’s former Northgate Mall location said Danny Gilfort, the center’s first and only principal.

Students gather in the courtyard in front of the Resource Center after finishing their classes for the day

Gilfort said that schools like theirs are smaller, so they can focus more on the social difficulties that high school students face. “Childbirth, employment issues and the general social environment can all be addressed and worked through here,” Gilfort said.

The Academic Readiness Center was a new addition to the school this year, Gilfort said. According to the school’s brochure, the readiness center allows eighth- and ninth-graders older than their classmates the opportunity to make up missed credits during an extended school day and with additional tutoring.

With about 100 students attending the center, class sizes are personalized and have a student to teacher ratio of 18-to-1. Students get individualized graduation plans, school counselor Cathy Jones said. In addition, there are extensive mentoring programs and a higher degree of parental involvement than in a traditional high school setting.

“It’s like it was in elementary school,” Jones said. “The parents are invited to the school several times a year and can plan conferences with the teachers so they can stay involved.”

With 70 percent of students reaching graduation, the center is helping Durham public schools continue the trend of having a lower dropout rate than the state average for the last three years, Gilfort said.

According to the Durham Public Schools website, in 2009, 4.46 percent of students in Durham’s public school system dropped out – roughly 570 students. Of those students who dropped out, 187 decided to return to nontraditional schools, like the center, for a second chance to finish their education, and 70 percent were successful in reaching graduation.

“If you’re a motivated person who has made some mistakes in your life, this is the school for you,” Trice said.

After spending several successful years at the center, Trice graduated in January 2010 and has a solid GPA at Durham Technical Community College. He plans to transfer to North Carolina Central University and graduate with a degree in criminal justice to pursue his dream of becoming a law enforcement officer. Like many of the center’s graduates, Trice is the first in his household to attend college.

“You can’t join the police force without a diploma,” Trice said. “It all started with PLC.”

Prefer a printer-friendly version of this story? Click here for a PDF of it.