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Charter High School in Cape Coral Attracts
Students Trying to Catch Up, Get Diploma

By Jason Wermers | September 19, 2008 | News-Press.com


When 17-year-old Kayla Minnich started classes at North Nicholas High last month, she had as many course credits as most ninth-graders begin with.


When class let out this afternoon, typical ninth-graders who didn't start with course credits still had none.

But Minnich earned three credits in the first four weeks of school.

Her experience is not unique. North Nicholas High opened Aug. 18 for students who are behind in earning credits toward graduation. The school accepts students ages 16 to 21 and gives them the chance to earn a standard high school diploma.

The charter school is one of two that opened in Lee County and five total in Florida last month. The company, Accelerated Learning Solutions, is based in Fort Lauderdale. The other Lee school it opened is Coronado High in Fort Myers.

Through the first four weeks of school, North Nicholas has welcomed more students than even ALS officials had hoped for: 110 students are in the morning session, which runs 7:30 to 11:30 a.m., and 70 are in the afternoon shift, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

"They build your confidence," said Minnich, 17, of Bokeelia. "They don't judge you."

That's exactly the point, Principal Michael D'Angelo said.

"A lot of our kids may not have had that connection with school," he said. "They may not have been the athletes, the band kids. Our goal is to see that the kids are connected here."

The school is much smaller than a typical high school. The average enrollment at Lee County School District-run high schools is 1,562 students "10 times the size of North Nicholas" capacity for a four-hour shift.

That's another difference: ALS-run schools have four-hour academic days. Instead of students shuffling from class to class, teachers rotate to four classrooms throughout the day.

Students take their courses on computers. They can proceed as quickly or slowly as they need to. Teachers answer questions should students get stuck.

But the teachers and school staff will talk more than just academics with students.

If a student hasn't shown up for class without explanation, D'Angelo or another school employee will drive to the student's home to make sure they are OK.

At school, students say they can talk to the staff about their classes, college and career goals, hopes and dreams, or difficult situations they are facing outside school.

"No matter what you try to do, they will support you," said Nick McGuire, 20, of Cape Coral. "They have given me opportunities I thought I'd never have."

McGuire dropped out of a Lee high school five years ago.

"I found a good job," he said. "I was making money. I didn't think I needed school any more. But then I lost that job."

Without a high school diploma, he found his options were limited. So McGuire began preparing to earn a General Educational Development diploma. He cut that plan short when he heard about North Nicholas.

"When I found out I could get a high school diploma instead of a GED, I decided to go for it," he said.

Now McGuire plans to go to college after getting his diploma, which he plans to get by December, and pursue a career in nursing.

Minnich had never earned a high school credit because she never stayed in one place long enough. She faced difficult family circumstances at times, moving back and forth between parents in Bokeelia and Texas, and even at one point living on her own and attending a boarding school in Texas.

She hopes to earn her diploma by next spring, go to college, and work with exotic animals.

Teachers say they appreciate the school's small size, the chance to help students who may have had the easiest circumstances growing up, and that the students are at North Nicholas because they choose to be there.

"It is amazing the difference in attitude you see in students when they are here by choice," said Eileen Quinlan, the school's assistant principal. "They see we want to help them reach their goals."