A nonprofit founded in 1992

Greenville News: Editorial: Keep at-risk middle-school students OnTrack

Image removed.
Superintendent of Greenville County Schools Burke Royster speaks the unveiling of OnTrack Greenville, a $15 million, 5 year plan to improve graduation rates of White Horse Road community schools.(Photo: BART BOATWRIGHT)

Published May 30, 2015

Middle school can be a terribly difficult time when students get off track and start a slide that ultimately will leave them unprepared for high school and facing a future where risk has replaced promise. Students from less advantaged areas face even greater odds in making it through these most challenging grades because they also are forced to work through the disadvantages associated with living in impoverished neighborhoods.

Life can be tough enough when a pre-teen or early-teen is dealing with leaving the cocoon of elementary school while also undergoing vast hormonal changes. In lower-income areas other challenges are added to that mix. The student may not have enough food to eat at night or on the weekends. He may come from a home with only one parent who is working several part-time jobs. The student may be completely in charge of his after-school care and have no one who sets limits and pushes homework. A student may not get medical care when it's needed, or she may find herself bounced from house to house because there is no permanent home.

Such students can face downright overwhelming struggles outside of school so it should come as no surprise that classroom performance can suffer. Greenville County now is positioned to be a leader in bringing together community partners and coordinating comprehensive efforts to help these middle school students stay engaged in school and on track to graduate. In doing so our community can become a model for the rest of the country.

Multiple Greenville County agencies unveiled last week an exciting new community-wide initiative that will provide extraordinary resources to four middle schools that serve lower-income students with the goal, as the name makes clear, to keep students OnTrack. For several years the United Way of Greenville County, the Greenville County School District and other community groups have focused on the White Horse Road corridor where nine out of every 10 students live in poverty.

This long-term initiative took more shape last week as the community learned of a comprehensive philanthropic effort and coordinated community approach to addressing the issues faced particularly by middle-school students in lower-income areas. This effort was accelerated last fall when Greenville got a federal Social Innovation Fund grant to support work in the White Horse Road corridor. The $3 million, three-year grant comes from the Corporation for National and Community Service, and it can be expanded by another $2 million over another two years if Greenville can show results from its initiative.

That $3 million that can be turned into $5 million is only the start. Community agencies are challenged to raise matching funds, and then community partners that will receive the "subgrants" must also match the money. The formula makes this a potential $15 million investment in middle school students in the targeted area.

"This is an evidence-based strategy to increase the graduation rate among middle school students," Greenville United Way president Ted Hendry said last week in a meeting with The Greenville News editorial board. The initiative will focus on four middle schools that serve White Horse Road students: Berea, Lakeview and Tanglewood, along with the Greenville Early College.

The United Way received the Social Innovation Fund grant last year, and it is working with Hollingsworth Funds and the Community Foundation of Greenville to raise the matching funds. In a venture that speaks well of Greenville and demonstrates its commitment to this effort, a new group has been formed called the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. These partners will support this initiative with funds raised through a number of private foundations and Greenville-based corporations.

The five organizations announced last week that will implement evidence-based programs are:

BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) will use its $233,000 annual grant to provide free six-week summer camps for about 220 students entering sixth grade who are struggling academically. The full-day math and reading camps will run four days a week with transportation and meals provided.

Communities in Schools will use its $342,000 annual grant to hire site coordinators for each grade at all four schools to manage cases for the most at-risk students on a one-on-one basis.

Greenville County Schools will use its $237,000 annual grant to hire four additional mental health specialists (one for each target school). Coordinators will serve as part of an Early Warning and Response System aimed at helping students in the target schools.

The Greenville Health System Children's Hospital will use its $187,000 annual grant to start school-based health clinics at each school staffed by a registered nurse and nurse practitioner. Through this effort students will have access to non-emergency care, and referrals can be made for mental health and dental care.

Public Education Partners of Greenville County will use its $190,000 annual grant to provide specialized teacher training for Balanced and Disciplinary Literacy strategies at Berea, Lakeview and Tanglewood to help teachers individualize instruction for struggling students.

Through the OnTrack initiative, Greenville County has an opportunity to greatly increase the chances that at-risk students will find success in middle school, then high school and ultimately in the life that follows. Our community will be better for participating in this effort and ensuring every child has access to the future that he or she deserves.