WATERLOO - Brianna Evans used to love school.

That began changing when she arrived at Central Middle School and "they started giving us all this homework." A fight last fall followed by seven weeks at the Waterloo Educational and Behavioral Center further deepened the eighth-grader's academic troubles. But Evans is finally experiencing success after starting summer school last week.

She spends mornings at Hoover Middle School, working at her own pace to complete online lessons in math and reading. She goes through tutorials, practices the skills being taught and takes tests over the materials. And that old positive attitude about school is slowly returning.

Students are required to get at least 80 percent correct on the tests before moving on. Evans has been regularly exceeding that, especially in pre-algebra, which she had difficulties with during the past year.

"Every time I get 100 percent on my work, I feel good about it," said Evans.

She is among 35 struggling Waterloo Community Schools' students doing advance preparation for their freshman year with the summer classes. The district also is offering online summer school classes at East High, with 120 attendees, and West High, with 146 attendees. The programs run through July 2 at all three schools.

The software powering those lessons is made by Plato Learning, the same company supplying curriculum for performance-based diploma academies at East and West. A third academy will start this fall at Expo High School. East and West are drawing a mix of students for credit recovery, completing performance-based diploma classes and credit acceleration.

At Hoover, students currently are working toward mastery of "critical concepts" at the eighth-grade level, said summer school facilitator and West High teacher Traci Hahn.

Gage Nardini said learning those concepts has turned out to be fun. He failed some classes at Bunger Middle School this past year and enrolled in the summer program to avoid repeating eighth grade next fall.

He expected to have to do "some really boring" work during summer school. But Nardini likes using the online tutorials because he can put in ear buds and hear the lesson narrated. The program also relies on graphics to teach concepts.

"It's, like, right there, you can see it," said Nardini, of the graphics in a lesson on using distributive properties to solve a pre-algebra problem. "And then it talks to you at the same time. Like, it shows you how to do it."

After students have achieved mastery on the eighth-grade lessons, they will be introduced to ninth-grade concepts. Sarah Stephan, one of four other teachers working with the students, said that is intended to "give them a start so when they get into high school they have more confidence." That may be critical for these students after failing classes, excessively skipping school or exhibiting behavior problems.

"I came here because I was the normal screw around, fall-asleep-in-class kid," said Conner Hofstadter, while at Bunger during the past year. "The first three quarters, I failed. The last quarter I passed, I believe."

He "dreaded" coming to summer school, but admits "it's not as bad as I pictured it would be" because of his ease around computers. "And the teachers are nicer. They care about what's going on in your life."

Hofstadter likes having teachers available for one-on-one help, working at his own pace and not taking school work home. And he is learning.

Evans also acknowledges the benefits of her summer school experience. "At first I didn't want to come, but now I see that it's really helping me," she said.

And that has convinced her of one important fact: That she will be ready to start ninth grade at West High School in the fall.

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