Semaj Harvey will be awarded his high school diploma soon.
It’s an event the Groves High School senior is wholeheartedly looking forward to. Harvey plans to study business administration in college, and his goal is to be a real estate broker. "It’s kind of exciting," he says modestly.
Today, it’s hard to imagine that this handsome, intelligent young man was once at risk of failing in school. He seems so confident, so self-assured.
But at one point, Harvey was in grave danger of flunking or even dropping out. "I was behind in my grades and trying to catch up," he says. "I applied to go to the Savannah Corporate Academy and was accepted."
The Savannah Corporate Academy is a part of the Savannah/Chatham Public Schools System that is designed to help at-risk students. A national organization called Communities In Schools stands behind Corporate Academy and other school programs that seek to help students succeed in school and prepare for life.
Steve Dantin is the executive director of Communities in Schools Savannah/Chatham County. "It’s the nation’s largest dropout prevention program you’ve never heard of," he says.
"Most of the counties in Georgia have a Communities in Schools site, and in Savannah, we partner with the school system to operate the Savannah Corporate Academy," Dantin says. "It’s an alternative high school for kids who have either dropped out of school or been identified as a student about to drop out."
Corporate Academy isn’t a program for juvenile delinquents, Dantin says. "Other programs address that problem," he says. "We take kids who for whatever reason aren’t performing well in a traditional school setting."
At Savannah Corporate Academy, there is a 15-1 teacher-student ratio so that students get the extra attention they need. The program isn’t a GED program, either, Dantin says.
"Once they complete their course of study at Savannah Corporate Academy, they return to their home high school to receive a regular high school diploma with the students at their own school," Dantin says. "Since 1992, we’ve graduated over 1,000 would-be dropouts. The Corporate Academy is a flagship program in Savannah."
Communities in Schools also sponsors LOVE, or Landings Outreach Volunteer Educators, which places full-time reading tutorial coordinators in four elementary schools and one after-school, inner-city community center. They in turn recruit up to 200 volunteer tutors.
"Kids in kindergarten through fifth grade work one-on-one with a tutor once a week," Dantin says. "The purpose is to get them reading on their grade level. The same thing takes place at the community center, except the kids there are tutored in all subjects."
It’s important to start early, Dantin says. "Drop-out prevention begins in kindergarten," he says. "Although our emphasis with Corporate Academy is on high school students, the reason we have the reading tutorial program is because it’s an established fact that a kid who can’t do well in school is a prime candidate to drop out."
There is a dire need for a similar program for middle school students, Dantin says. "The only thing that prevents us is funding," he says. "We’ve had such success with Corporate Academy, we’ve had many middle school educators express the desire to have the same type of alternative prevention program for middle schools."
Dantin has served as the CIS executive director for 11 years, but he’s not a teacher, educator or social worker. "I’m a non-profit administrator," he says.
But as a youngster, Dantin was the type of student he’s now trying to help. "There were no alternative high schools when I was coming along in the late 1960s and early 70s," he says.
"I was at risk, if not of dropping out, certainly of doing extremely poorly, so much so that my parents sent me off to the only alternative school they knew of, which was a military school," Dantin says. "I had a great experience there, but my parents sacrificed to do that and had to spend their own funds. As part of the public school system, Corporate Academy doesn’t cost."
The program is located on the campus of Savannah Technical College. At its inception, the program was based at Oglethorpe Mall.
When the mall could no longer afford to give the program space, it was moved to two locations -- downtown Broughton Street and Savannah Mall. In 2006, the two sites were recombined.
"Savannah Tech simply provides the land," Dantin says. "The classes are held in modular units.
"The idea is to dually enroll as many eligible students as possible with Savannah Tech with the idea being once they graduate from Corporate Academy, they have two choices. If they decide to go to college, they can take their core requirements at Savannah Tech, which will transfer to any university in the state.
"If they want to pursue a technical career, they’re already at Savannah Tech," Dentin says. "The first Corporate Academy began with approximately 12 students, and most years, we serve 150. The school system provides the curriculum and teachers."
Because much of the funding is provided through the school system, CIS has a total operating budget of $115,000. It also gets grant money from the city and the Georgia Department of Education, and the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce provides office space.
Every year, a campaign is conducted to raise the rest of the money needed for the program. The campaign’s chairman is Tom Wiley, the president and CEO of Coastal Bankshares, Inc.
"We’ve got a serious problem in Georgia because of the drop-out rate," Wiley says. "We’re just now beginning to realize how important programs like these are. Because of entrepreneurial spirit and volunteers, we have a recipe for opportunity so these students can realize the dream of a high school diploma."
Alex Salguiero, owner of the Savannah Burger King franchise, is chairman of the campaign. He brought CIS to Savannah in 1991. "Next year, we’ll graduate our 19th class," he said.
Salguiero says 1,500 students have graduated through the program since its inception. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would still be in operation," he says.
"Most students can’t find work if they’re not a high-school graduate," Salguiero says. "Sometimes they end up on society’s payroll and are incarcerated or are part of the welfare system.
"The cost of educating them and guiding them to a successful life is so much more cost-effective," he says. "It’s really worth the effort. Our businesses and the whole community are going to benefit."
What is most satisfying is when students come back after graduation to speak other students, Salguiero says. "They’re very grateful to have gotten a second chance," he says. "It’s been amazing to see the kids grow and succeed through this program."
Dr. Thomas Lockamy, superintendent of the Savannah/Chatham Public Schools System, says the CIS program is very popular with students. "The graduation rate is over 80 percent," he says. "It’s also the one program we didn’t consider cutting in our reduction of the budget. It truly addresses alternative students’ needs."
Most students come into the program on a counselor’s recommendation, Lockamy says. "These are students who are having problems in a traditional classroom setting," he says. "It is designed for the student who needs extra attention to succeed."
When CIS was brought to Savannah, current Mayor Otis Johnson was executive director of the Youth Futures Authority. Johnson, who has spoken publicly several times about the need to address the issues facing at-risk youths, took CIS representatives to meet with the city council back then.
"Communities in Schools is an important concept because the community needs to support what’s going on in the schools," Johnson says. "The students need to see themselves as an integral part of the neighborhood.
"I’ve been supportive of Communities in Schools for many, many years," he says. "I’m very happy to see our community get involved with this program and support it."
Mandita Hardial was a student at Windsor Forest High School who was having problems with her studies, but now plans to be a pediatrician. "I heard about the Corporate Academy through a friend," she says. "I was going back in my grades then, but once I got in the academy, my grades came up. It really did help me."
And Semaj Harvey? "I was so skeptical, but Corporate Academy welcomed me with open arms," he says. "They helped me pass the graduation tests on the first try.
"At my home school, I wasn’t able to receive the help I needed," Harvey says. "This allowed me to have one-on-one time with the teachers and staff, and now I’ll be graduating in June."