When school bells ring Thursday in Mason County, a new learning academy will debut at the high school.

The Mason County Learning Academy concept was approved and funded by the Mason County Board of Education to help struggling students experience a new way of learning and provide an avenue of hope toward graduation.

With a dedicated faculty, a revamped building, new computers and flexible hours, the district's investment of $150,000 plus is focused on helping students who are on the verge of failing, thus becoming a drop-out statistic.

Mason County, like all Kentucky counties, strives to achieve the goals of Kentucky General Assembly Senate Bill 1 to prepare students for college and improve graduation rates.

Although Mason County had a drop-out rate of 1.5 percent for the 2011 graduating class, the district has maintained a 1 percent drop-out rate on average, with a dip several years ago to 2 percent, said Superintendent Tim Moore.

In 2011, 11 students out of 170 didn't graduate.

"Year to year, that's over 40 kids," said Mason County High School teacher Kristie Campbell.

MCHS faculty members Kent Moore, Sean Jackson, and Campbell have joined with Mason County Middle School Principal Justin Moore and faculty member Jeff McEldowney to develop the learning academy concept, which serves as a replacement to the "alternative school" at the campus.

One purpose of the revamped program is to eliminate the stigma that an alternative school is only for "troubled" students, said Moore.

The academy will focus on the needs of high school students struggling with classwork, whether due to work schedules, pregnancy, family situations, poor socialization skills, teacher conflict or behavioral issues.

Justin Moore and McEldowney will monitor and refer eighth grade students entering high school to the academy. Helping students recover credit hours for core classes is also a primary focus, so students can advance toward graduation.

Flexibility is a key component to the academy, because classes will not only be offered during school days, but also at night and weekends. Class hours are planned around the student's Individual Learning Plan and are not the traditional 50 minute instruction time.

Students can also access the curriculum via the Internet, so study time can also take place at home.

Counselor Kent Moore will work with students for placement in a mentoring program.

Students will work in a workplace environment in a field they have an interest.

They will also review such life skills as writing a resume, time management, interview skills and other skills needed to be successful in a career profession.

The academy is also working closely with Maysville Community and Technical College and the Mason County Area Technical School to help students transition successfully from high school to college or a work environment after graduation.

Academy students will also participate in daily school activities or clubs of their choice, said Campbell.

Jackson said student progress will be "closely monitored" and the program is designed to help people who want to participate.

"Our real goal is to get the kids transitioned back into the classroom," said Jackson.

Students who qualify for the academy will meet with teachers and their parents to learn more about how the program works and expectations for participation.

MCHS Principal Steve Appelman said academy instruction should begin the third weeks after the opening of school and there are 120 slots available.

In addition to funding the new Mason County Learning Academy, the Board of Education has also set its tax rates for 2011.

During the regular monthly meeting Monday, board members accepted the state recommended compensating tax rate of 45 cents per $100 assessed value on real estate.

The compensating tax rate will generate an estimated $5 million in revenue to the general operating fund, according to Superintendent Tim Moore.

The board had the option of accepting a 4 percent increase, which would have generated $5.2 million.

The increase is the first the district has taken in nine years; the 2010 tax rate was 44.7 cents per $100 assessed value.

In other business, the board learned the food service department ended the fiscal year with a balance of $233,181 and the district as a whole ended the year with a balance of $3.6 million.

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