Durham, N.C. — For students at the Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy, the traditional trek back to school Monday was anything but routine.
The academy, inside the Performance Learning Center on North Driver Street in Durham, opened its doors for the first time to welcome 85 students for a second shot at a high school diploma.
The students are among the 350 to 375 who drop out in the Durham County School District each year.
Marquest Holeman didn’t imagine he would be sitting in a classroom on the first day of school. Less than a year ago, he thought he'd given that up for good.
“I didn’t like the way school was going,” he said. “I didn’t like getting up early, and I started falling off in my schoolwork and stuff that was going on at home. So, I just stopped going.”
Aside from a few cousins and his mother, most people he knew had given up on school, too.
“Everybody I knew dropped out,” he said.
Then Holeman got a call from someone he had worked with at Northern High School, telling him about a new program the district was starting called the Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy. The former basketball star established a partnership with EdisonLearning, an education service provider, to help students at low-performing, urban schools.
"It’s flexible and it’s at my own pace,” he said.
Program director Lorenzo Johnson Jr. said the academy is tailored for the individual needs of each student. Most of the classes are online during the school day, with certified teachers who supervise and provide help.
Times are flexible for students who work or have children, and counselors are there to help students deal with barriers to graduation.
"We have students coming in with as little as zero credits, and students are coming in with as many as 20 credits,” Johnson said.
The academy cost the district about $500,000 to start up, and officials spent more than eight months researching the curriculum.
The ultimate goal, officials said, is to drive down the district’s drop-out rate and help more students earn their diplomas.
“I think long term, when you look at the research, students who have a high school diploma earn more money long term than students who do not,” Durham school Superintendent Eric Becoats said.
Francisco Santiago, 17, dropped out of Riverside High School last year and then watched how happy his mother was at his sister's graduation.
“It’s crazy how just a paper can change and make, like, your mom happy and stuff,” he said. “So I kind of changed my point of view. I got motivated, and I wanted to come back to school.”
Santiago said he used to skip class and argue with his mom about it. Now, he wants to go to college and study something with computers.
“I wanted to make my mom proud of me,” he said.
The students share a determination to make their first day of school a new beginning.
“I want the excitement,” Holeman said. “I want to know that I did something. I want to graduate.”