Some Charlottesville High School students are attending class at night.

The WALK Program, which began in 2007, and which helped 82 CHS students earn diplomas in the 2012-13 school year, is an alternative learning initiative aimed at assisting students who are struggling to meet graduation requirements.

Since its inception, about 1,200 eligible students have meet with teachers and WALK tutors during school hours. Those hours have now been extended to Tuesday through Thursday evenings, from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

“This is a comprehensive, mainstream high school, and there are kids who don’t always fit into that box,” WALK Director Dianna Poe said. “Every division has to look at ways of how they’re going to serve those kids.”

The extension comes on the heels of a 6.7 percent drop in Charlottesville High School’s graduation rate, which fell to 80.6 in 2013. The statewide graduation rate was 89.1 percent.

The division’s dropout rate rose from 6.2 to 10.2 percent in 2013 as well.

“We’re looking at the dropout rate and some of our students who have attendance issues,” Associate Superintendent Gertrude Ivory said about extending the hours. “We’re trying to remove some of the barriers for some of our students.”

And those barriers, Ivory said, range from a lack of daycare for a student’s child, to difficulty adjusting to a traditional classroom, to trauma, to balancing a job with high school courses.

The majority of WALK students attend CHS full-time, but are at-risk of failing required courses or dropping out of school. Additionally, school official hope that the evening hours attract recent dropouts and 16-18 year olds who are a year behind in school and want to pursue a GED.

Teachers or counselors will refer a student to WALK when he or she is failing a course required for graduation, and teachers and tutors then work intensively to help students complete those courses.

Charlottesville City Schools WALK enrollment data – Includes students fully enrolled in program
Credit: Charlottesville City School Board presentation on Jan. 9, 2014

But the first goal, Poe said, is for the student to remain in the traditional classroom while receiving tutoring.

“WALK should be pretty far down the road,” Poe said. “You’re not going to come into WALK tomorrow because you have a C in a class and mom wants you to have an A.”

Some students, however, benefit from completing the course he or she is struggling with entirely through the program. In these cases, the student uses Apex Learning, a provider of online courses that align with Virginia’s Standards of Learning.

Poe said that the students benefit from the additional support, and that the tutors and teachers are skilled in building personal relationships with the students.

“A lot of it’s not even curriculum, it’s supporting them with what’s going on in their outside lives,” WALK Instructor Lynne Levine said. “It’s being a listening ear as they talk through their day, and letting them know that this is a safe place.”

Laquarius Warfield, a 5th year senior who has taken courses with WALK since the end of last school year, said the program served as a second chance.

“When I found out I wasn’t going to graduate on time, I got down on myself and thought I was letting a lot of people down, but WALK gave me the opportunity to know that I could still have my education and graduate and get my diploma.”

“If you don’t have that,” Warfield added, “you can’t get a job.”

What’s more, Warfield said, is that he prefers the individualized style of learning online versus in a traditional class.

At the December 12 School Board meeting, member Jennifer McKeever argued that holding additional school hours undermines the message that coming to school on-time is important.

“Part of being in school is the workforce readiness concept of being at school, being at work,” McKeever said. “You don’t get non-traditional hours at work, so to what extent does this undermine that workforce readiness component of high school?”

Charlottesville Superintendent Rosa Atkins said WALK is not a free pass for students to skip school and attend at night.

“The student would still be expected to enroll in the traditional school and attend during the traditional hours,” Atkins said. “This is to help that student have some flexibility, but we’re not going to relieve the student from the expectation that they would adhere to some of the traditional hours and parameters that we have in schools.”

This is not the first time CHS has hosted students outside of traditional school hours.

In 2007-08, students could attend school on weekdays, Saturdays, and some Sundays.

“We had a number of students who got pregnant, moved away from school, had to provide their own childcare, but who were on the path to graduate on time,” Assistant Superintendent James Henderson said. “This opportunity gave them another choice, another time format, to get a high school diploma.”

WALK is funded in part by Charlottesville City Schools, but is also largely dependent upon Title 1 funds. However, as Title 1 funds have dipped in recent years, the division has raised more money through donations to support an approximately $230,000 budget.

As for now, Poe is focused on meeting the needs of students.

“The beauty of WALK is that we change with the kids we have that year,” Poe said. “One year I’ve got more teenage moms, one year I’ve got this or that. Kids are fluid, life is fluid, so we change for what the needs are.”