OPS' Accelere program is marking its one-year anniversary of a partnership with Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo. The program helps get 17- to 21-year-olds back on track to earn their high school diplomas, and now that happens, in part, in a wild setting.
"The partnership with the zoo has really enthused students about learning," said Accelere Director Shari Koch.
"It's really nice to have that reward," said Accelere senior Susana Reyes.
Learning from some of the top researchers in the world acts as an incentive for students. They have to do work back in the classroom to earn these days behind the scenes at the zoo.
"They ask me daily, 'Am I ready for the zoo?'" said Accelere instructor Shawn Graham.
Most of the students, for one reason or another, fell behind in high school and turned to Accelere to catch up. That means intensive, 3-week courses that meet for several hours a day.
"It's not just a shortcut," said Reyes. "They pack everything that you learn in a semester in traditional school in 13 days, so we're just constantly working."
While the unique approach works well for most of the students, many still need a push to get through.
"They just need to understand it's not a class," Graham said. "This is your real life. We're showing different ways to get the knowledge other than opening a book."
Graham tells WOWT this hands-on experience has led to more scholarships for Accelere graduates. He says students are driven to work harder in the classroom after seeing real-life applications and that's paved the way to higher grades.
"I think it's a great way to get outside the classroom, and actually do some experiments that might help in the real world," Reyes said.
During the first year of the zoo partnership, the number of credits earned by Graham's students has climbed more than 20%.
Even for the program director who helped create Accelere back in 2009, this new addition of learning on site gives her a better understanding of students' needs.
"Watching them interact with the professionals at the zoo and just the great questions that they ask and the insights that they have is interesting and fun," Koch said.
Accelere is expanding its partnership Monday. The program will team up with Habitat for Humanity so students can earn credits for graduation while helping build and re-vamp homes for those in need.