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Transforming America's poorest performing schools

Diplomas Now, a program affiliated with Hopkins' School of Education, is increasing graduation rates and elevating achievement in failing schools nationwide, thanks to philanthropic support
Posted July 22, 2016
Teams of teachers at Boston English High School discuss the progress — and challenges — faced by a common group of students they teach. (photo courtesy Rene Patten) Teams of teachers at Boston English High School discuss the progress — and challenges — faced by a common group of students they teach. (photo courtesy Rene Patten)

The English High School in Boston — one of the city's oldest and once considered among its best — ranked a level 4 on the Massachusetts Turnaround List in 2012. That's the last stop before a school gets shut down for poor performance.

"You don't get much more high-stakes than that," recalls René Patten, a teacher at the school for more than a decade. "That's the context into which Diplomas Now came."

Rooted in the research of Hopkins alumnus and School of Education Professor Robert Balfanz, PhD, Diplomas Now combines interdisciplinary teacher teams and special coaching, an early-warning system, and enhanced social services to keep at-risk students on track for high school graduation.

Boosted by federal and private philanthropic support, Diplomas Now has been implemented in several of America's lowest performing schools with promising results. A recent report published in The Washington Post cites a study by MDRC, a nonpartisan educational and social research organization, that concluded Diplomas Now's model had a "positive effect on increasing the number of students who are considered on track for graduation" in participating schools. At Boston English in particular, the school surpassed city and state benchmarks on standardized tests and increased its overall attendance from 83 percent in 2012 to 94 percent in 2015.

These are big changes in terms of school turnaround, says Charles Hiteshew, chief executive officer of the Talent Development Secondary, a division of the School of Education's Center for Social Organization of Schools and a lead partner in Diplomas Now.

"Our goal is to become a strategic lever for districts to help improve the lowest five percent of their schools," Hiteshew says.

How Diplomas Now works

Operating in 41 schools in 12 cities and serving about 36,000 students, Diplomas Now uses a three-pronged approach. Hopkins-affiliated staff from the Talent Development Secondary establish mutually supportive teacher teams that focus on small, manageable cohorts of students. TDS also provides teachers with curriculum and technical assistance that helps fill student skill gaps in numeracy, literacy, and life and study skills. City Year corps members — recent college graduates who dedicate a year of service to challenged schools with federal AmeriCorps support — provide tutoring and mentorship to students inside and outside of the classroom. Professional social workers from Communities In Schools provide professional case management and counseling for students facing homelessness, abuse, and other major issues.

Central to Diplomas Now is a weekly meeting among teams of teachers, corps members, and social workers who share the same group of students. Each student presents at least one of Balfanz's three early warning indicators for potential dropouts: attendance below 85 percent, a course failure in math or English, and a suspension for poor behavior.

"This is the catalytic converter of the Diplomas Now model," Hiteshew says. "It exposes the broad profile of the students to each member of the team and allows them to collectively develop, implement, and monitor an intervention to help any one student overcome an indicator he or she is struggling with."

Diplomas Now's goal is to establish the model in three to four schools in a district for four to five years at a time. At that point, they anticipate partner schools will be able to follow the model on their own. Talent Development Secondary staff then move on to assist another set of schools, while City Year and Communities In Schools staff may stay as long as a school faces challenges associated with high levels of student poverty.

Spreading success to more schools

English's Patten, initially a skeptic of Diplomas Now, has become an evangelist. She particularly appreciates the program's adaptability to individual schools' needs and the way it eases the burden on teachers in high-poverty areas.

"There are students who have extreme service needs relating to traumas and safety. As teachers, we need to support students through those while helping them make up four years of reading progress in months so they can pass state standardized tests," she says. "Diplomas Now allows teachers to focus on the whole student to make those achievements possible."

Yet to bring this program to more schools like Boston English — especially as public education funding struggles to reach its pre-2008 levels— philanthropy is essential, says Scott Crumpler, Diplomas Now's executive director for Miami. He oversees the program in four schools, one of which saw its transformation highlighted in remarks made by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at last year's celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in Washington, D.C.

"We need consistent, sustainable funding to work alongside school staff to teach them this process," Crumpler says. "It is imperative to have teachers, mentors, and counselors in these schools who can make these students feel safe, welcome and confident; to keep them engaged in school and focused on being prepared for life. That's why Diplomas Now is so important."

For more information on how you can make a gift to support Diplomas Now and the School of Education, please contact Michele Ewing.

For more information about Diplomas Now program operations, please contact Kathy Nelson.

Listen to more from Robert Balfanz on NPR's Morning Edition.