Greenville News: Greenville launches OnTrack to keep students in school
In the troubled White Horse Road corridor, where nine of every 10 middle school students live in poverty and many students face added challenges posed by language barriers, home life and health issues, education often becomes secondary to survival.
Parents work three jobs, leaving children to fend for themselves and take care of siblings. Some families don't have doctors and common ailments plague children for weeks, leading to missed school days. Some parents don't speak English, so they avoid school offices and events. They become disengaged, and their children follow suit.
The issues are myriad in this 40-square-mile area of Greenville that hasn't prospered like the economic juggernaut that surrounds it.
So the solutions must be myriad as well.
Thursday, the United Way, the Greenville County School District and multiple community agencies launched a long-term initiative to reach deeper into these communities to get to the heart of daily struggles to keep students on track and in school.
The problems can be generational, the issues cyclical, and this vast group of partners believes the answers lie in education.
Starting this summer and fully implemented by the fall, an intensive effort will begin at four White Horse Road-area middle schools to track how students progress in the classroom and to coordinate efforts when students begin to veer off track.
The program will be called OnTrack Greenville. It received $15 million in initial funding for three years, which could stretch to five years and likely beyond.
The United Way announced the program last fall after it received an initial $3 million grant, which could stretch to $5 million, from the Social Innovation Fund, a White House initiative and program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. The United Way, the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy and five subgrantees provided matching funds.
OnTrack Greenville will build an early warning and response system for Berea, Lakeview, Tanglewood and Greenville Early College middle schools, which will serve students of the nearly 80,000 White Horse Road-corridor residents. Teachers and staff will have a dashboard of real-time information about student grades, attendance and behavior.
"If they are off track, then teams of teachers will discuss that student, determine the root cause to why they're off-track and then determine an intervention or a course of action to get that student back on track," said Tobi Kinsell, OnTrack director.
The early warning and response system has been piloted elsewhere, in Philadelphia, Phoenix and New York City schools, and it's based off research that shows that students who eventually drop out of high school often mentally check out in middle school.
Unique to Greenville, though, is the second part of the program: involving community organizations in providing day-to-day solutions for needy families to keep students focused on school, said Ted Hendry, president of United Way of Greenville County.
"It quite honestly is a different kind of work," said Mike Posey, United Way spokesman. "It's something that is different for us. It's based on evidence that we've seen in other communities, but it's really becoming uniquely Greenville in the way it's coming about."
At Berea High School on Thursday, OnTrack announced five community groups who will work hand-in-hand with schools to intervene when students need help.
• Building Educated Leaders for Life will use its $233,000 annual grant to provide free six-week summer camps for about 220 academically struggling students entering sixth grade. 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 students one-on-one, said Susi Smith, executive director of Communities in Schools of Greenville.
• Greenville County Schools will use its $237,000 annual grant to hire four additional mental health specialists and to begin teaching a leadership class for students to learn "soft skills" like personal responsibility, anti-bullying, healthy relationships and developing future goals.
• 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. The clinics can assess and provide treatment and prescriptions for non-emergency health needs for students.
• Public Education Partners of Greenville County will use its $190,000 annual grant to provide teacher training for Balanced and Disciplinary Literacy strategies at Berea, Lakeview and Tanglewood to help teachers individualize instruction for struggling students.
The program will be vital if Greenville is to raise its graduation rates in the corridor because educators aren't necessarily the experts in helping remove out-of-school barriers, said Burke Royster, Greenville County superintendent.
"The phenomenon that you observe if you work in those grade levels is students who become disengaged and they 'drop out' of school before they leave school," Royster said. "You can't leave school in South Carolina until your 16th birthday … but they disengage, they leave mentally, much earlier than that."
Teachers often are the first to notice when a student begins to slip, said Tiffany Estes, principal of Greenville Early College, a 140-student middle school that pulls students from Berea, Lakeview and Tanglewood.
Now those teachers will have a support structure to wrap around those students so the teacher can focus on the classroom, she said.
At Berea Middle, Principal Robin Mill said she spent six years trying to organize a program to give students food loaded in backpacks so they would have meals during the weekends away from school.
"With this coordinated system of community resources, that could happen a lot quicker," she said.
Half of students at the targeted middle schools have faced formal discipline, and 40 percent missed more than nine days of school, based on 2012-2013 data.
More than 92 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Those factors are reflected in education statistics; 46 percent don't meet state standards for English/language arts, while 52 percent failed to meet state standards for math at those schools.
A transient population, single-parent or parentless homes, parent incarceration, separation of siblings and substance abuse at homes of her students sometimes make education a low priority, Mill said.
That's where the site coordinators can step in, said Smith, with Communities in Schools.
When teachers gather every week to discuss struggling students, the site coordinators will develop individual plans to help students, visit students and families in their homes and provide services to get students on track, she said.
Communities in Schools has a site coordinator at the schools already, but their case loads approach 100 students, Smith said.
"It's going to help us be sure the kids are not slipping through the cracks, that we don't wait too long to start some sort of intervention," she said.
The program goals are to increase math and English/language arts proficiency by 25 percent, reduce chronic absenteeism 75 percent and decrease disciplinary referrals and out-of-school suspensions by 50 percent.
The Riley Institute at Furman University will track the program's success and suggest changes if certain aspects aren't working, Kinsell said.
Eventually, the school district could expand the model district-wide, she said.
And the nation will be watching to see if Greenville succeeds in keeping students in school. If so, it could be replicated nationwide, she said.
WHITE HORSE ROAD CORRIDOR
40 square miles in White Horse Road corridor
80,000 people live there
92.5 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch
40 percent missed at least nine school days
12 percent missed more than 18 school days
49 percent were disciplined for misbehavior
25 percent received out-of-school suspension
46 percent did not meet English/language arts state standards
52 percent did not meet math state standards
ONTRACK GREENVILLE GOALS
25 percent increase in math and English/language arts proficiency
75 percent reduction in level of chronic absenteeism
50 percent decrease in disciplinary referrals and out-of-school suspension
3 year initial program
$15 million in total funding