‘Insider Trading’ Used to Retool Failing Schools

Baton Rouge, La. — Three years ago, Broadmoor Middle School in east Baton Rouge was on the brink of failure.

It had a 50 percent suspension rate, and every year, roughly one in four students was falling behind in English and math. In other schools, such startling numbers often prompt full-scale turnaround efforts — meaning half the staff is laid off, administrators are replaced.

Broadmoor, however, opted for a different track. A data-driven model known as Diplomas Now was implemented to target students who were showing early signs of dropping out.

Traditional models use testing to track student performance in the classroom.  Under the Diplomas Now model, tardiness, unexcused absences, and misbehavior are also charted and flagged as problems that could lead to larger issues later in a student’s life. 

The data is collected and regularly analyzed by a group of academic and social care professionals.

“We can really map where the schools and where the kids are,” explained Diplomas Now founder Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University.  ”It’s almost like insider trading for the social good.”

Diplomas Now received $30 million in federal stimulus funds in 2009 to launch the program in 44 schools across the U.S.

Balfanz’s approach aims to improve attendance, behavior and course performance — he calls it the “ABC method.” 

“We recognized a lot of kids needed daily nagging and nurturing,” Balfanz said. “Someone to say, ‘I am excited to see you in school today.'”

Diplomas Now schools benefit from the help of two outside partners to supplement the regular staff. City Year, a national service organization, and Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that determines student needs and provides social services to address them, have both been involved in Diplomas Now from its inception at Broadmoor Middle School.

Many City Year members are recent college graduates, and they’re required to give one year of work inside some of the nation’s highest need public schools. 

Balfanz says the organization, modeled as an urban peace corps, was a natural fit for Diplomas Now, which uses roughly 10 to 15 City Year members per school.  

The goal is to create what Balfanz describes as “near peer” relationships for students and provide them with additional attention from adults who are not necessarily teachers or school administrators.

“Getting attention from the cool person – you know the person that knows your music,” Balfanz said, “sort of flips that dynamic that getting extra attention is now good and not bad.”

The attention City Year corps members provide generally ranges anywhere from tutoring and mentoring to simply being someone students can eat lunch with on a regular basis.

Yet some student issues go beyond the scope of what either school officials or City Year members are equipped to handle. That’s where Communities in Schools fits into the Diplomas Now program.

Patrick Gensler, an on-site social worker, says he sees about 50 students at Broadmoor with problems that, left unaddressed, could keep them out of the classroom.

“Things like teenage pregnancy, self harmful behavior, suicidal ideas…and bullying we deal with on a pretty common basis,” Gensler said.

Broadmoor’s former principal Denise Charbonnet — who recently took a job in Norfolk, Va. — says that the additional support and academic guidance yielded dramatic results over the last three years.

“We lowered our suspension rate from 50 percent to 15 percent, which is below the national average,” Charbonnet said. “And we have lowered the failure rate from about 25 percent to 7 percent.”

Some 40 million Americans lack a high school diploma, but Balfanz says the problem is concentrated among 5,000 schools.

Those are the schools he will target going forward.

“The model is specifically designed to be robust enough for the highest need schools,” Balfanz said.


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