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Published: Monday, 3/29/2010

Mentoring offers kids a chance to graduate

BY BRIDGET THARP
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Susan Milliron helps Adrian Williams, 17, with work in a Polar Academy late-afternoon session at Woodward High School. Susan Milliron helps Adrian Williams, 17, with work in a Polar Academy late-afternoon session at Woodward High School.
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Adrian Williams, 17, had already missed 48 days of school by October.

He spent his days in class mostly sleeping and often cut out early to hang out with older friends.

As he worked to repeat the ninth grade at Woodward High School this school year, he said he was often frustrated that lessons seemed to move too quickly or would go totally over his head.

"The work was hard," he said, adding, "Only some of my teachers would help out."

Now he's working toward his diploma through a program called the Polar Academy, created at Woodward by the nonprofit JLJ Vision Outreach. Sessions run Monday through Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m.

He has been rewarded for his perfect attendance with a $250 cash incentive monthly and said he finally has the help he needs.

"All my classes are online now, and I have a teacher sit next to me and explain it to me," he said.

Polar Academy operates under a $50,000 federal stimulus grant obtained by JLJ Vision Outreach.

If the program works and the funding keeps coming, JLJ will seek to expand it to other Toledo Public high schools, said Keith Jordan, executive vice president and director of development for the organization.

Kim Highsmith, a special edu-cation paraprofessional at Woodward and a JLJ tutor, peeked over the shoulders of six teenagers in her classroom during a recent session of Polar Academy.

Many of the students enrolled in the program have known learning disabilities.

A few required specialized lesson plans in the traditional classroom, she said.

"We have a couple kids in here that need a little bit of assistance," Ms. Highsmith said. "A lot of the kids just didn't make it in school."

In October, JLJ launched the Polar Academy program - named for the Woodward sporting mascot, the polar bear - to help students who have dropped out, been kicked out, or are truant to finish their schooling at Woodward.

Though the program is too new to boast any graduates, students who earn their diplomas may take part in any of the high school's regular commencement ceremonies, Mr. Jordan said.

Students work toward their high school diplomas through A+ software, which guides them from remedial instruction through more advanced lessons.

Polar Academy enrollees may make $250 a month with perfect attendance.

JLJ mentors keep the students busy during the day with job training and volunteer opportunities around the city.

To qualify for Polar Academy, students must live in the Toledo Public School district and be at least a year behind in their progress toward a diploma.

JLJ initially accepted registration from about 70 such students but expects 12 to 20 students to show up regularly.

Funding is available to pay up to 25 students each month.

Of those, nine received the $250 incentive last month, Mr. Jordan said.

The cash is a major incentive for students, he said.

For some students, that $250 puts food on their families' tables. For others, it could be a car payment.

Any incentive to study hard is welcome at Woodward, which reports a 25 percent dropout rate.

Principal Emilio Ramirez suspects the problem is even worse than that.

"I would estimate that our dropout rate is about 40 percent," he said, adding that the numbers are "a little deceiving."

"If a kid leaves here and goes to charter school, to us that's a clean break. But the reality is, do they really graduate from that school?"

The Polar Academy could help change that.

Since the program's inception in October, the high school has recorded a drop in suspensions. That could be because some of the at-risk students are now enrolled in the program, he said.

"We're trying to meet the needs of kids that are disengaged from school," Mr. Ramirez said. "They may see themselves as failures, but this gives them some success."

JLJ Vision Outreach's operation of the Polar Academy is the brainchild of Mr. Jordan, 37, a former auto worker.

When he learned that his career would be ending with the closing of the Ford Maumee Stamping Plant in 2007, he decided to invest his severance package in a nonprofit for the community.

JLJ Vision Outreach had operated since 2003 as a mission of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, 2001 Ashland Ave.

The JLJ is a tribute to Mr. Jordan's father, Jimmie L. Jordan, who remains a minister in the church.

Dean Mandros, chief of the criminal division for the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office, said he became involved with JLJ Vision Outreach as a member of the advisory board almost two years ago after meeting Mr. Jordan.

Prosecutors brainstormed with local groups on ideas for steering at-risk youths away from crime because "locking everyone up isn't the answer," Mr. Mandros said.

"Keith Jordan - he impressed me at that meeting. If you talk to him for 10 minutes, you really can tell his passion and sincerity," he said.

Mr. Jordan, who was raised in North Toledo, believes youths need more adult role models.

"For kids, the biggest problem is depression. These kids are severely depressed. They don't see the light at the end of the tunnel. They don't have hope anymore. They don't believe," he said.

Now he sees a success story on the face of every student who shows up for Polar Academy.

"We don't teach these kids how to survive. We teach them how to succeed. We take them out of survival mode," Mr. Jordan said.

"And 99.9 percent of that is leading by example. You have to lead by example."

Contact Bridget Tharp at:

btharp@theblade.com

or 419-724-6086.



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