The History of Gum may not seem like a serious topic for an English class discussion, but the point of the lesson was not really about gum, but about learning how to study.

The incoming freshmen in Lisa Pivinski's summer Jump Start class at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology had been asked to read the one-page history and highlight only the three most important facts. An accompanying paper was headed "Stop Mad Highlighting Disease."

"I want them to determine what is important," Pivinski said as students wrote their three most important points on the board. "Some students will highlight three-quarters of the text."

ACIT began the program about five years ago to help incoming freshmen get acclimated to the school and to improve their academic and study skills. Director of Curriculum Johanna Johnson said with students coming in from every district in the county there is often a gap in skill levels because each district has its own curriculum.

During freshman orientation in June students were given a math test to gauge general areas of weakness. Johnson was delighted to see math teacher Luann Inman teaching how to measure slopes, since that was one area where almost all students struggled.

"It's a skill they don't have, any of them," she said. "We were able to see what skills they needed and focus on them."

School staff also looked at students' eighth-grade state test scores and grades. About 200 students, almost half of the expected incoming freshmen class of 400, were invited to come to the voluntary three-week program that ran from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday. About 165 have attended.

The program ends this week, and students interviewed said it has been helpful.

"I'm not really strong in math," said Shaniyyah White, 14, of Atlantic City, who is entering the dental assistant program and spent the first two weeks of Jump Start in math, then the final week in English.

"I'm ready for algebra now," she said.

Shani'yah Melton, 15, also of Atlantic City, said she's learning writing strategies she can use in class.

Jamie Muscony, principal of the alternative high school, who will take over Johnson's job in September, said the program also helps acclimate the students to the large building and make new friends, which helps maintain the retention rate for the school.

"This way their first day of school isn't really their first day in a new building with new people," she said.

Walter Akeret,14, of Mullica Township, who will attend the building trades program, said the summer program wasn't like a traditional summer school, but was a lot of review.

Jerry Wade, 14, of Weymouth Township, said they did some stuff he knew and some new stuff, and he does feel more comfortable about starting school in September.

"It helps us understand what we'll be doing," said Daryll Clark, 15, of Pleasantville.

"It helps you meet new people and keeps your mind focused," added Selenia Sears, 14, of Pleasantville.

Johnson said the program is not inexpensive to run - busing alone costs $45,000 - but she credits the program with helping maintain the high retention and graduation rate at the school. Grant funds from several federal sources are used to pay the cost of transportation, teachers and materials.

In 2012 the school had a 97 percent graduation rate, according to ACIT's 2012 state school performance report. More than half of the students are considered to be from socio-economically disadvantaged households. About nine percent of students have some disability. Johnson said they will continue to track the at-risk students all year. The school also offers an after-school tutoring program, with busing.

"It is voluntary, but students come and it is working," she said.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241