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Greenville News: Keeping students and community on track

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Published Saturday, June 13, 2015

About 4,200 students from our 14 high schools walked across Greenville County stages earlier this month in front of proud family and friends. Through much hard work and perseverance, they reached a milestone we want all of our community's students to achieve: a high school diploma.

It's a tremendous accomplishment for our students, but it's also one they did not achieve in isolation. Throughout their years in school, they received support from their families, teachers and other school and district staff, and the community at large. Meeting the collective needs of our students requires the partnership of families, schools, the community, nonprofits, businesses, local government and others working together.

In that spirit of that partnership, earlier this month we unveiled OnTrack Greenville - a new initiative to ensure all middle school youth stay on track toward high school graduation. The initiative is beginning by implementing a comprehensive, evidence-based dropout prevention strategy - called an Early Warning and Response System - designed to support middle grades students and their families.

We know from research that one of the most important time periods for students to receive this support is the middle grade years. Middle school is a time for students to explore their strengths and to start thinking about their future. But, it is also a time when too many students begin to disengage with school and take the first steps on the path toward dropping out of high school, putting their futures at risk.

Research shows that attendance, behavior and course performance in middle school are key factors in predicting a student's success when they reach high school. OnTrack Greenville's Early Warning and Response System - using a model piloted effectively in other communities around the country - will utilize real-time data to identify students beginning to disengage from school as indicated by attendance, behavior, and course performance.

By identifying students early, a coordinated team of educators and community experts can match students with the right interventions and then monitor each student's progress over time.

This is not a one-size fits all solution. One of the great things about this work is that it recognizes every child's situation is different; the community responds with assistance tailored to each student's needs.

This idea has inspired an unprecedented response from a variety of stakeholders, beginning with the federal government's Social Innovation Fund. A program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Social Innovation Fund serves as the catalyst for impact - using public and private resources to find and grow community-based nonprofits with evidence of strong results.

When the Social Innovation Fund awarded our community a $3 million grant last fall for our middle grades initiative, that support triggered an immediate response from Greenville County's community of philanthropic organizations looking to make a collective impact.

Led by United Way, the Hollingsworth Funds and the Community Foundation of Greenville, the newly formed Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy has united generous support from a strong list of public, private and corporate foundations.

Thanks to this support, five organizations will receive substantial three-year grants to implement the coordinated response: BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), Communities in Schools, Greenville County Schools, Greenville Health System, and Public Education Partners. Together, they will provide a variety of programs to address student and family needs, including on-site health services, counseling, links to family support, teacher training, mentoring, leadership education, and more.

These programs will begin by the start of the 2015-16 school year.

We believe OnTrack Greenville will stimulate a systemic change in how we as a community support students during the middle school years, placing students firmly on the path to high school graduation, preparing them for college or career, and creating a cycle of success for themselves and their families.

OnTrack Greenville will begin with a targeted focus on the schools serving high-need students in the White Horse community: Berea, Lakeview and Tanglewood middle schools, and Greenville Early College. We're starting in that community because, too often, simply where you live can put you at a disadvantage that's hard to rise above. If we are to strengthen our whole Greenville County community, we must focus on specific areas that need us most and change the odds for our children in these neighborhoods.

Our aim is to build on the successes and lessons we will learn over the next five years to provide an effective model that can be expanded to other schools and other communities. Working in collaboration, we can eliminate the barriers that block children from achieving the successful future that we want for every child.

Whether it's through contributing dollars or time, or lending your voice in support of this important community issue, we hope you will join us on this journey.

Burke Royster is superintendent of Greenville County Schools. Ted Hendry is president of United Way of Greenville County. For more information, visit www.OnTrackGreenville.org.