Sixty Students, Five Teachers, One Goal 

A small, new high school in North Memphis focuses on retention.

Kana Mabon isn't the average teacher. Before she became staff-development coordinator at Memphis City Schools' Teaching and Learning Academy, Mabon taught at Cypress High. And her approach has always been hands-on, to say the least.

"On my cleaning period, I would go to the principal and say, 'Could I go get this child? He wasn't sick yesterday, so he couldn't be sick today,'" Mabon recalls. "So I'd go and get them -- knock on the door and say, 'You're not sick; you need to come to school.' And I'd ... bring them to school."

On August 14th, Mabon will take her commitment to a new level as founding principal of the New Small High School (NSHS) in North Memphis. Currently housed in the top floor of Caldwell Elementary, the NSHS will have 60 students and five teachers per grade.

The size takes aim at a common problem: average students -- even those with learning disabilities -- often get overlooked in large student populations that allow for little personal attention. Forty-seven percent of students who drop out do so because they feel bored or disengaged in school, according to a March 2006 survey by Civic Enterprises. Among the nation's 50 largest school districts, MCS is ranked 40th in terms of its drop-out rate (51.5 percent), according to a June 2006 report by Education Week.

NSHS' message could potentially change the way that Memphis approaches public education. The school is the result of a $100,000 grant given by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the Coalition of Essential Schools' Small Schools Project.

Students will receive personal attention in advisory groups of 10 to 15 that will meet at least twice a week. "They're going to feel like they're a part of something," Mabon says.

In addition to traditional learning, NSHS students will learn by shadowing workers in fields that interest them. "My goal is to have them do a full internship during the second semester of their senior year," Mabon says.

Even for students whose goals aren't clear, NSHS will provide a strong, dual-path education. "Whether they choose to be an artist, a hair designer for stage, or a brain surgeon, they'll be prepared academically," Mabon says. "I want to help them create a back-up plan just in case, because things happen."

Each student will work with a guidance counselor to form a personalized four-year plan that will suit his or her career goals. "They're going to be aware of all the prerequisites for their first year of college, and then they're going to backtrack and make sure that their four-year plan meets it," Mabon says.

When NSHS opens it August, it will serve only ninth-graders, and a higher-grade will be added each subsequent year. NSHS will be re-named by parents and teachers soon after opening day and will move to a to-be-determined location next year.

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