By Julian March
UNC Staff Writer
The Durham Voice
The Achievement Academy is nestled in a suite in the South Bank Building in downtown Durham. Behind the door, students and volunteers move in and out of the hallway and the two main rooms. Gayle Erdheim, academic director, is on the phone with a parent talking about getting a student a bus pass. Sandy Ogburn, administrative director, is in her office organizing some of the items from Thursday night’s graduation ceremony.
But behind the noise and movement, a student sits in a quiet room reading with a volunteer. The nonprofit program offers high school dropouts free tutoring to prepare for the general equivalency degree, or GED.
“We’ll move heaven and earth to get them through,” Ogburn said.
Erdheim works with the 30 to 35 GED students five days a week. Sometimes, she teaches vocabulary or writing. At other times, she encourages the students to stay in the program. It is a tight-knit classroom and Erdheim sits close to her students.
“It’s really kind of maternal,” she said.
The students who come to Achievement Academy shoulder heavy responsibilities.
Ogburn says a little less than half of her female students are either pregnant or parenting. Many students do not have a stable home life.
“A number of our young people are homeless, which is a tremendous impediment to an education,” she said.
She said most of the students have probably lived in Northeast Central Durham at one time or another, but they are very mobile. Erdheim says the students would not say they are homeless because they may have a couch to sleep on.
They are “moving from place to place,” she said. Those types of environments make it harder for the students to concentrate in classes. Some students fell behind in public schools and never caught up.
Many students are “very low readers,” Ogburn said, meaning they read at upper elementary or middle school levels.
“If nobody’s reading to you, it becomes harder for you,” Ogburn said.
“I think it’s talking as well as reading,” Erdheim added. “Being exposed to a more developed vocabulary than whatever’s on TV.”
During the 2006-2007 school year, 420 students dropped out of high school in Durham, according to the Department of Public Instruction. But the number of dropouts has continually decreased since 572 students left during the 2003-2004 school year.
Keeping the students coming to Achievement Academy can be a challenge. There is a 70 percent success rate, but sometimes they will start off strong but then progress will slow.
Students may stop coming for weeks at a time before they return.
“We’ll sit down again,” Erdheim said. “Students go in and out of our lives.”
But the smaller classes and one-on-one reading makes a difference. Over 20 volunteers regularly come in to ensure the students get special attention. Last year, volunteers logged 1,300 hours.
“We’d never be able to do this without the volunteers,” Ogburn said.
Rodricka Benton, 18, came to Achievement Academy when she was 17. She had dropped out of a high school in Chapel Hill but wanted to earn a GED.
A mother of two, she graduated from the GED program on Thursday night. She is now excited to begin taking college preperation courses, which the Achievement Academy also offers. In December, she will start going to Durham Technical Community College. First, she plans to get an associates degree in paralegal work. Then she wants to go to the North Carolina Central University School of Law.
But for now, she is coming to the Academy for her college preparatory classes. When she is not studying, she will tutor GED students in reading and math.
Jason Smith, a graduate of the Achievement Academy, is now in his third semester at Durham Technical Community College.
“I want to be an architect,” he said.
Now Smith is taking courses in literature and public speaking, where he delivered a speech to his class. He is active in student government and works on outreach and fundraising.
He shows his appreciation for the program in subtle ways. He wears his “Achievement Academy” hat and still comes back to study.
But the biggest endorsement came a few weeks ago, when Smith got in touch with his cousin, who dropped out of high school. He wanted to tell him about a free program that would give him a second chance. It made a difference in Smith’s life, and he wants to spread the word.