Why ‘Mastering’ the Basics of Why We Go to School Matters

BY April Brown  December 6, 2012 at 3:49 PM EDT

Editor’s note: The latest installment of our American Graduate series takes us to Broadmoor Middle School in Baton Rouge, La., a school that is using data to improve student attendance, behavior and class performance. Watch the report here.

Students in Shelis Jones’ Mastering the Middle Grades class create a chart of reasons why students may not attend school, and what can be done to get them in the classroom. Photo by Mike Fritz/PBS NewsHour

Baton Rouge, La. | “If you attend school 60 percent of the time, how many days of school do you miss each year?”

There is a smattering of answers coming from the uniformed students responding to Shelis Jones in her class at Broadmoor Middle School in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“You miss 72,” Jones says. “Now, how many months would that be if there are 20 days in each month?”

You may think Jones is in charge of a math class as she poses these computational questions. You’d be incorrect. She is trying to convey the importance of education — and why attendance matters. This is how everyone at Broadmoor starts the day.

“Why do I have to go to school?” is a frequently moaned phrase from many a young student. But it is also a valid question. Ensuring students know the reasons behind their daily “job” can play a significant role in determining whether a child drops out of school.

Nationally recognized dropout expert Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University explains why it’s particularly important for children in middle school:

Balfanz is the guiding force behind the school transformation model known as Diplomas Now. It’s a data-driven program of curriculum reforms and support services leveraging the resources of Johns Hopkins School of Education and the non-profits City Year and Communities in Schools to work with administrators and staff. Together they identify the predictors of poor school performance, and initiate and support positive change.

As part of Diplomas Now, participating middle schools spend the first 30 minutes of each day looking at why school is important and how to succeed in a class called “Mastering the Middle Grades.”

“It happens first thing every day,” said David Phillips, the Diplomas Now Field Manager for East Baton Rouge Parish Schools. “They [students] come in, they hear a positive statement from a caring adult. They get a positive lesson about why you need to do this, and what are the benefits of doing that. It starts the day off differently than just coming in, sitting down, opening a book, opening a notebook and listing to lecture or whatever you might do in a classroom.”

Broadmoor Middle School Science Teacher Shelis Jones has found the lessons in Mastering the Middle Grades are not just teaching students about the importance of coming to school. She says it offers productive skills that will help them in all aspects of life.

“They don’t know if they want to be a kid or an adult. What Mastering the Middle Grades does, it focuses on issues that they are faced with every day. It does help them to be able to learn how to function and communicate.”

Jones also believes this morning class has been one of the instrumental changes transforming the tone at Broadmoor.

“They’ve been motivated, they come every day, they’re excited, I see a difference in their face, facial expressions, body language. They want to be here. They are eager to learn, they want know what is it that my teacher has for me today. I see more of that,” said Jones. “Before, they were kind of just here, so they are more engaged. I see them more engaged.”

Seventh grade student Keithrick Junius, Jr. sums up — in typical middle school fashion — what they go over first thing in the morning: “Like tardiness, how being on time, doing your job, going to high school and passing college, how much important that is to your life. And being successful. When you grow up not a bum on the streets and it’s probably all teaching about punctuality, just being on time, do our best and do a successful life.”

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American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to the dropout crisis.