RAY SUAREZ: At BroadmoorMiddle School in Baton Rouge, La., early mornings have the feel of a pep rally. All 525 students are greeted every school day by a team of young adults from the national service organization City Year.
The nonprofit works like an urban Peace Corps. It requires recruits, many of whom are recent college graduates, to work for 10 months in some of the nation’s highest-need public schools in an effort to reduce the dropout rate.
Today’s cheering and upbeat attitude is in contrast to how the school was when principal Denise Charbonnet arrived in 2009.
DENISE CHARBONNET,BroadmoorMiddle School: The first year I came, I almost turned and walked out the door. The discipline was a real issue here. We had over 50 percent suspension rate.
RAY SUAREZ: On top of behavior issues, Charbonnet also inherited a school where one in four of the students were failing and the district was seeing a spike in homelessness.
BroadmoorMiddle School is made up of mostly minority students and 95 percent of them are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, meaning the kids come from low-income families that qualify for federal assistance.
But despite these challenges, Charbonnet says her school has largely been able to turn things around in the last three years.
DENISE CHARBONNET: We have lowered our suspension rate from 50 percent to 15 percent, which is below the national average. We have lowered the failure rate to 7 percent and improved attendance for each and every grade level.
RAY SUAREZ: It’s an unlikely success story Charbonnet says began when a program called Diplomas Now came to Broadmoor. Diplomas Now identifies at-risk students long before they could ever drop out of high school and then provides a set of intervention and support guidelines to raise achievement.
The idea came from one of the nation’s leading experts on dropout prevention, Robert Balfanz of JohnsHopkinsUniversity. Balfanz spent years developing a data-driven model that flags early warning indicators to target students who show signs of falling behind in subjects like math and English. He says two pivotal years determine whether or not a student will be academically successful.
ROBERT BALFANZ, Johns Hopkins University: Our focal point is always starting with sixth and ninth grade, because the data shows if you can make the transition to middle school and the transition to high school and really get from sixth to 10th grade on time and on track, your odds of graduating go from maybe one in four to three in four. It’s a really big shift.
RAY SUAREZ: With the help of $30 million in federal stimulus funds, Balfanz has been able to implement his research and create partnerships with nonprofits dedicated to helping students in 44 schools across the U.S.
Balfanz says Diplomas Now cost a school like Broadmoor anywhere from $650 to $750 per student to put the program in place.
That money helps to pay for City Year’s presence and additional support staff within the school. Balfanz admits that’s a high cost at first, but it’s well worth it in the long run.
ROBERT BALFANZ: The cost to society of a dropout is staggering compared to the investment it actually costs to keep many of these kids in school.
And if you don’t believe that, the statistics in the most recent recession, right, is the number of youth 18 to 24 who are — dropped out of high school that are neither in the labor market nor in any kind of training is in many cities over 50 percent to 60 percent, I mean, true depression-level statistics.
And imagine if you are 24 years old, don’t have a high school diploma, and now don’t have a work history. Are you ever going to actually be employable? The odds are quite likely not.
RAY SUAREZ: At the heart of Balfanz’s approach is an ABC method for turning around failing schools. It focuses on attendance, behavior and course performance, with the first goal being simply to get students to show up on time for class every day.
ROBERT BALFANZ: Not surprisingly, kids that don’t attend get in trouble and fail their courses drop out. And we found that kids were signaling early and often, but schools weren’t designed to pay attention to it, and if they did pay attention, they didn’t have the resources to respond.
RAY SUAREZ: Balfanz says that many of the schools in his model needed additional resources as quickly as possible.
And his research showed it was critical for students to have relationships with adults inside the school that shifted constantly from nagging to nurturing.
Balfanz says that City Year, which already had a national presence, was a natural partner for Diplomas Now.
ROBERT BALFANZ: By having this corps member who is a near peer, who has just graduated college, knows your music, but is seen as being the captain to the whole classroom, getting attention from that person is seen like, wow, I’m getting attention from the cool person. You now seek it out.
So, that sort of flips that dynamic, that getting extra attention is now good, not bad.
RAY SUAREZ: And that dynamic is on display with Keithrick Junius Jr., a seventh grader at Broadmoor. Teachers say Keithrick had some behavior issues last year, but he is making great strides, in part because of his relationship with Sara Ross, who Keithrick describes as being his older sister at school.
KEITHRICK JUNIUS JR., student at BroadmoorMiddle School: Well, she helped me with my schoolwork. She helped me with school problems. Say, if, for instance, if I get put out of class, she will walk me around the school. We will sit down and we will talk. And she will bring me back to class, and I will get back and do my work.
RAY SUAREZ: Ross, a Baton Rouge native, is in her second year at Broadmoor, helping to lead the corps members here on their mission.
SARA ROSS, City Year: We’re here to make things better. We’re here to tutor kids. We’re here to make sure that they stay on track. We are here to make sure that they graduate. We want to prepare them for high school.
RAY SUAREZ: But, sometimes, serious personal issues outside the classroom can derail student achievement and require more expertise than school officials or City Year can provide.
PATRICK GENSLER, Communities in Schools: So, those things that might be affecting their physical or mental health, such as suicidal ideation, loss of a parent or a loved one, incarceration of a parent, mental health diagnosis, physical health diagnosis, all those things.
RAY SUAREZ: Patrick Gensler is an on-site social worker at Broadmoor from Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that is yet another Diplomas Now partner.
Gensler says that he sees more than 50 students at Broadmoor who are having problems that could keep them out of class. Gensler also takes part in the regular required meetings involving all of the partners: school administrators, teachers, City Year corps members, and the Johns Hopkins Diplomas Now team based in Baton Rouge.
Each student showing warning signs in attendance, behavior or course performance is discussed at length.
WOMAN: The reason why his grades are low is because he’s not putting forth the effort.
RAY SUAREZ: A plan is then agreed upon for the best course of action. Incentives and encouragement are often used, as are calls home to a parent for any student who doesn’t show up to class.
Eighth grade science teacher Shelis Jones says the meetings have been instrumental in changing the culture at Broadmoor.
SHELIS JONES, teacher at BroadmoorMiddle School: When we are there, we are discussing individual students who may have some signs that need to be addressed. And we designate who is going to focus on that. And it breaks the job down. It makes it a little easier. It’s not one big load on the administration, one load on the teacher. It’s divvied up. And I like that.
RAY SUAREZ: And the program also seems to work for students like Keithrick, who says he wants to one day become an architect, so he can build homes for the homeless. First, though, he is narrowing down his options for what he wants to do after high school graduation.
KEITHRICK JUNIUS JR.: I’m thinking going to a — probably LSU, if I’m still in Louisiana, or Juilliard, the school of arts and music and all that stuff. Did I say that right?
RAY SUAREZ: Denise Charbonnet says that Balfanz’s model was immediately embraced by the school because it didn’t call for a full-scale turnaround.
DENISE CHARBONNET: Johns Hopkins came, and what I really, really liked about them is that they didn’t come in and try to say that we needed to do everything differently. They came to say, what can we do to enhance what you are doing here? How can we make it better?
ROBERT BALFANZ: We often have this vision that it’s because the adults weren’t succeeding. If we change the adults, find the right person to blame — maybe it’s the principal, maybe it’s the teachers — change them — maybe it’s the community — close the school — change them, we will be OK, and not recognizing that, by and large, people are really trying to do a good job, and they are just overwhelmed and overmatched.
RAY SUAREZ: Robert Balfanz says he is aiming to implement Diplomas Now in 20 additional schools over the course of the next two years.