Middle School Moment


July 17, 2012
What Is the Middle School Moment?        Transcript        Credits        DVDs


Middle School Moment is part of FRONTLINE’s Dropout Nation community engagement campaign supported by American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America identify and implement solutions to address the dropout crisis. Learn more about how to participate.


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What Is the Middle School Moment?

Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. Robert Balfanz has uncovered a series of indicators that he says can predict how likely a student is to drop out of high school: attendance, behavior and course performance, which he describes as the “ABCs.”  

In high-poverty schools, if a sixth grade child attends less than 80 percent of the time, receives an unsatisfactory behavior grade in a core course, or fails math or English, there is a 75 percent chance that they will later drop out of high school — absent effective intervention.

Middle schools are generally designed to give younger kids a more intensive level of support.  If intervention doesn’t occur until high school, Balfanz says it becomes much harder to “turn kids around and put them back on track.”

Why Middle School?

For most students, the process of dropping out begins in middle school, when Balfanz says the habits that predict whether or not a student graduates are formed, making it a critical “make or break” period.

And for children in high-poverty areas, the stage can also bring significant new challenges: a 12-year-old girl might become the emergency day care for her family; the children of immigrants may be pulled out of school to be translators; with money tight, children might become involved in the family business. Meanwhile, at this stage adolescents become more vulnerable to gangs, criminal activity, drugs and substance abuse.

Despite it being a critical period, Balfanz says that the “powerful learning time” that occurs in middle school has been neglected by recent reforms, such as President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, which targeted elementary schools, or other programs that have focused on high schools.

How Does the Model Work?

Based on those findings, Middle School 244, the Bronx school featured in Middle School Moment, modeled its approach around public health principles – pushing “upfront prevention” through targeted interventions for some of the most troubled students, based on the ABC data.

“They need an adult counter force, they need another adult or several adults in the students’ lives who every day is reminding them in simple ways that schooling leads to a good future and you could succeed in school,” says Balfanz. “Someone to say, ‘John, I’m so excited to see you in school today, and I expect to see you tomorrow, and if not you know I’m gonna come get you.'”

Balfanz says schools can do that by organizing teachers into teams that share a common set of kids. These teachers don’t just need to know when and why their students are absent, but they also need to coordinate with the other teachers to determine why he or she might be missing some classes and not others, and who will focus on a particular student when there’s a problem.

Middle School 244 principal Dolores Peterson told FRONTLINE that administrators in her school learned that poor behavior or grades were often the result of something else going on in their home or social lives or their study habits. As a result, administrators reallocated their resources, hiring fewer school aides, redistributing responsibilities amongst the teachers and hiring an additional counselor, so that there was an adult assigned to help every at-risk student and monitor interventions.

Every week at the school, statistics are collected and reviewed by a team of counselors and teachers. The students most in need are flagged, and their assigned counselor organizes an intervention.

Balfanz adds that it’s crucial for teachers to go over the data on a regular basis and make sure they are coordinating and recording their responses to learn what works and what doesn’t for different students.

Can Middle School 244 Be A Model for Others Around the Country?

“Any school can use this system to keep kids on track,” says Balfnaz. He says his team tested the indicators in different cities and states around the country, and found that it held for more than just the high-poverty cities they studied.

While he says attendance, behavior and course performance “were always highly predicative,” he warned that the “cut points” — the exact rate of attendance or poor grades that indicate a student is at risk of dropping of track — may vary based on locality. “The categories were right but that local areas would need to run their own data to figure out what’s the cut point of saying, ‘this is a yellow flag, this is a red flag.'”

But he also also cautions that while teachers are the front line, they won’t be enough to reach every at-risk student. That’s why he argues that schools need to get creative and bring in a “second shift” of adults — national service corps members, volunteers, retired teachers — so that every one in “that group of kids in the middle” has an adult.


Middle School Moment

Mary Robertson

Frank Koughan

NARRATOR: Two-and-a-half years ago, Omarina Cabrera, a student at Middle School 244 in the Bronx, was struggling.

OMARINA CABRERA: My first year here, me and my mom got evicted. I felt shattered. That was the home that I had for my whole life and I grew up there. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. That period of not knowing wasn’t something that I felt comfortable with. I felt this inkling in me that I would never want my children or anyone else to experience.

[Twitter #Frontline]

NARRATOR: Shuffled between relatives’ apartments, some without even electricity, Omarina suffered another loss.

OMARINA CABRERA: When I was really young, my father walked out for whatever reason. I finally got in touch with him. Just before we were about to talk and I was about to go see him, he had a stroke. And I had to leave to the Dominican Republic and see my father for the first time, and it was in a casket.

NARRATOR: With her home life in chaos, Omarina’s school life began to suffer. She didn’t know it, but she was starting down a path that so many other young people take. Every year, over a million students fail to finish high school.

ROBERT BALFANZ, Johns Hopkins University: Even kids in the most dire circumstances really want a future. They just need to have a path to it.

NARRATOR: For 15 years, Robert Balfanz, a leading education researcher, has been studying the population of children who drop out of high school. Then he realized that the key moment when kids begin to go down the wrong path was in middle school.

TEACHER: What does that refer to? Stephanie?

STEPHANIE: When 9 divides the parabola into two equal parts.

ROBERT BALFANZ: If in the middle grades, you develop habits of not coming to school regularly, of getting in trouble or failing your courses, you bring that with you to high school. And the schools aren’t designed to help them succeed.

NARRATOR: But how do you identify those middle school kids most at risk? What exactly are the warning signs? Balfanz and his team harvested data from dozens of high-poverty schools, schools where at least 40 percent of the students qualify for government-subsidized lunch.

ROBERT BALFANZ: We looked at about 40 different variables, and we put that into a big statistical analysis and said we want factors that are highly reliable and also yield a large number of kids in trouble.

NARRATOR: And within this chaotic tangle of data, the team found something revealing.

ROBERT BALFANZ: And basically, out of this mix, four came out really strong. And that was our sort of Eureka moment. I saw kids waving their hands saying, “Help. Help me stay on track.”

NARRATOR: The data showed that if a 6th grade child in a high-poverty school attends school less than 80 percent of the time, or fails math or English, or receives an unsatisfactory behavior grade in a core course, that absent effective intervention, there is a 75 percent chance that they will drop out of high school.

ROBERT BALFANZ: It may seem far less than rocket science, but it’s something that, in fact, schools by and large have not paid attention to.

NARRATOR: Schools have long collected statistics on absences, behavior, and of course, grades, but many educators don’t recognize the significance of those numbers.

The principal of Middle School 244, Dolores Peterson, is one who did.

DOLORES PETERSON, Principal, Middle School 244: The Balfanz research was so interesting to us because we looked at it and we said this is a great way to identify our students at a very early stage.

NARRATOR: Students like Omarina Cabrera, who had been showing up late or not at all.

OMARINA CABRERA: At the beginning, I felt alone and I felt ashamed, and I didn’t want to speak to anyone about it. I just isolated myself from everything and everyone.

NARRATOR: But the data spoke for Omarina. Every week at Middle School 244, statistics are collected and reviewed by a team of counselors and teachers.

DOLORES PETERSON: Attendance— everyone’s with me?


DOLORES PETERSON: Let’s go to 802. Omarina. How is Omarina doing?

NARRATOR: The students most in need are flagged.

COUNSELOR: Currently, her mother’s not even in the United States right now. She was in a shelter not that long ago. Then they were evicted, so she’s having to go between relatives.

NARRATOR: And their assigned counselor organizes an intervention.

COUNSELOR: I took her home one day, and it’s, like, a— it’s a double commute. It’s a bus to a train. It’s on the other side of the world, you can say.

DOLORES PETERSON: I can’t tell you how much I worry every time she leaves this building.

COUNSELOR: When she leaves this building, you know, she’s on her own.

DOLORES PETERSON: Let her know that we’re going to support her, and keep us posted on what she needs.

Our students face challenges sometimes that young children shouldn’t have to face. And they need that support of the adult to help them through it.

CATHERINE MILLER: It’s all going to work out. And it’s-

NARRATOR: Catherine Miller was Omarina’s home room teacher.

CATHERINE MILLER: So once Omarina was identified, it was imperative on my part as a home room teacher, in consultation with the guidance counselor and administration, to discuss why she was coming in late so many times.

OMARINA CABRERA: They came to me and they asked me, “What’s wrong? You’ve been late a lot. Something has to be wrong.” And that’s when I told Ms. Miller that I was evicted.

CATHERINE MILLER: Your mother needs to feel safe, or she needs to feel good about where you are, as do you. And the best we can do right now—

We can compile thousands of numbers about who’s failing this or who’s passing that, but if there’s no response to that data, if there’s no initiative taken to understand that data, it’s all for naught.

NARRATOR: It became clear that a chaotic home life was the source of Omarina’s problem at school and she needed targeted practical support.

COUNSELOR: So you’re going to take this one today—

NARRATOR: The team helped her figure out routes to school from ever-changing addresses, got her a bus pass and books.

OMARINA CABRERA: Ms. Miller told me that I can break through it, that I’m strong enough, that I have the courage to do it. And the fact that she believed in me, I believed in me. And that’s something that— that a lot of people go through.

[www.pbs.org: Inside Middle School 244]

ROBERT BALFANZ: They need an adult counterforce, someone to say, “Did you get your work done? Let me make sure you understand it,” and also deal with, like, “I know you’re having trouble with this teacher or that teacher or these kids. Let’s work it out. Let’s solve it now.”

It’s that sense of shepherding is what the kids need to know that an adult not only cares, but the adult can actually help them.

DOLORES PATTERSON: How’s it going at home?

OMARINA CABRERA: It’s good. It’s not completely settled because of my mom, but I think it’s calmer than before.

DOLORES PATTERSON: That’s great. That’s great. And your brothers?

NARRATOR: Omarina has two brothers, one older and one her twin.

OMARINA CABRERA: My first year here, I had a lot of different things going on. I had my brother, who was so smart, and he was just like— he’s my twin. My brother began to be exposed to a lot of the things that were out there. And not only him but a lot of us were. Not a lot of kids make the right choice, and that is happening a lot of times in the Bronx for a lot of people.

NARRATOR: In the summer after 6th grade, her twin started hanging out on the streets and getting in trouble. His mother had him transferred to another school, thinking he’d be safer in a different neighborhood. But today, Omarlin rarely attends school and his future seems uncertain.

OMARLIN CABRERA: Where am I going to go to high school? I don’t know. I haven’t gotten a letter yet of acceptance.

OMARINA CABRERA: The fact that he got involved with the streets and the fact that he let the neighborhood influence him— he just began slipping off the mountain, slipping off, slipping off, slipping off.

It really was a difficult time for me. However, I think the only reason I got through it was because of support people bring to me, Ms. Miller and my guidance counselor. The fact that they told me, “You’re bright and you’re special,” and drove me and encouraged me, told me never to quit and never let your dreams end at the corner of Sedgwick Avenue, I don’t think I would be where I am today. And I wish my brother could have gone on the journey with me, as well.

NARRATOR: By the time she was in the 8th grade, Omarina had achieved near perfect attendance and had an average in the 90s.

TEACHER: Who agrees and why? Omarina.

OMARINA CABRERA: Because when you solve negative B over 2A to get the vertex—

NARRATOR: Soon she began working on applications to some of the nation’s best high schools.

CATHERINE MILLER: That was your best essay. Read it to me again. I love it!

[www.pbs.org: Watch on line]

OMARINA CABRERA: Typically, young adults look upon a political figure or someone in their life for guidance and support. I, on the other hand, seem to find this inspiration within a black-and-white street sign. Imprinted on the signs are the words, “One way.” It taunts me with another reminder that coming in is not the obstacle, but making it out.

I don’t think that me and my brother are on the same road. And I think he fell off and it’s really sad. The way you take school is important. He didn’t, and that’s why we’re going on different paths, I guess.

ROBERT BALFANZ: Any school can use this system to keep kids on track. And what’s going to vary from school to school is the extent they’re going to need to recruit an outside second shift of adults to help. And that’s going to always depend on the sheer number of kids.

NARRATOR: Middle School 244 reallocated their resources, hiring fewer school aides, redistributing responsibilities among the teachers, and hiring an additional counselor. Now there is an adult assigned to help every at-risk student.

MUSIC TEACHER: Ready? Cory, start them off. Louder than that. Let’s go! You’re a small group, so you need to make sure that you sound like something.

ROEMELLO, 8th Grader: When I came to this school, my opinion about school did change. Before, I felt that school was a waste of time.

JUSTIN, 8th Grader: Before I came here, I used to didn’t like learning a lot. I used to, you know, like watching TV or, like, going on the computer.

TYNIAJ, 8th Grader: When I wake up and I know I have to go to school in the morning, I have something to look forward to.

ROEMELLO: I like that I can go to a teacher when I need help.

JUSTIN: My hobby is researching more history, armies.

TYNIAJ: I am proud of myself because from last year, in— last year in April, I wasn’t doing— I was doing really bad, and now in April, I’m doing really good.

NARRATOR: These are some of the success stories at Middle School 244, but even this school can’t help all their at-risk students. And in America’s high-poverty schools, there are few intervention programs like the one at Middle School 244.

OMARINA CABRERA: That’s what makes it so interesting with my brother. I think that’s what I would be. I would be not in the school, and I think I would be— I wouldn’t care, and the fact that I would get into a college wouldn’t be that big of a deal. And the fact that I go on to high school, that wouldn’t matter to me. I can get my GED later, that’s what I would say.

NARRATOR: But chances are Omarina won’t be settling for a GED. She’s just found out she’s been accepted at nine high schools, including an elite boarding school in Massachusetts.

DOLORES PETERSON: Omarina, I’m so excited for you. So what did you decide? Which school did you choose?

OMARINA CABRERA: After giving it a lot of thought, I went with Brooks.

DOLORES PETERSON: So are you excited?


DOLORES PETERSON: I know I am! How does it feel, Ms. Miller?

CATHERINE MILLER: It’s very humbling. And I’m incredibly proud of your accomplishments.

OMARINA CABRERA: Oh, Ms. Miller! You’re going to make me cry!

NARRATOR: Omarina Cabrera is on her way to graduating. But across the country, thousands of students remain at risk, hidden in the data.


Middle School Moment
July 17, 2012

Mary Robertson

Frank Koughan

David Montero

Jessica Reynolds

David Mehlman
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