In November, an eighth grade English teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences (FSAS), a neighborhood middle school in upper North Philadelphia, was meeting with her colleagues to discuss one of her students, who had been failing her benchmark reading tests. The group decided the student needed intensive one-on-one tutoring.
In many schools, such extra help is difficult to come by. But in this case, a staffer from the nonprofit group City Year was available to tutor the student after hours—whatever it took—until the next benchmark test and beyond.
Six weeks later, the student scored 70 percent on her next benchmark.
The focused discussion of struggling students and the tutoring are components of a program at FSAS and the upper school of Cooke Elementary called Keeping Middle Grades Students On-Track to Graduation: The Early Warning Indicators Project. It targets students who exhibit telltale signs that almost always lead to dropping out.
The four indicators
Four years ago, the School District learned from research conducted by the Philadelphia Education Fund and Johns Hopkins that many of its future dropouts can be identified with near certainty by sixth grade based on four early warning signs: poor attendance, repeated behavior problems, failing English, and failing math.
“The research findings send a clear message that Philadelphia’s dropout prevention efforts cannot begin in the ninth grade,” said Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Center of Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University and one of the project’s lead researchers. The study followed 13,000 city students from middle school to high school and beyond.
In each class of Philadelphia sixth graders, between a third and half the students carry at least one of the early warning indicators – which gives them just a 10 to 20 percent chance of graduating from high school.
Backed by the William Penn Foundation, Johns Hopkins joined the Ed Fund and the District in 2006 to establish the pilot Early Warning Indicators (EWI) project at the two schools to test out interventions to help students get back on track.
Now the Early Warning Indicator approach has been adopted as an element of the District’s draft strategic plan to prevent students from dropping out.
“This is the first project I have seen that takes the critical step of providing the actual in-house services called for by the research,” said Deborah Bambino, a longtime District teacher who is the project manager for EWI at FSAS.
The Ed Fund works with middle grades staff at the schools to map out each year’s set of student supports and interventions at three distinct levels. Whole-school/classroom interventions are set in motion to reach all students. For example, Cooke adopted the 100 Book Challenge, a student supplemental reading program with a proven track record. Cooke is also implementing a climate program called Single School Culture. Some students need additional targeted interventions such as a daily check-in and contracts with a caring adult around attendance or behavior problems. Other students need intensive interventions such as daily one-on-one academic tutoring or case management for behavioral health issues.
More troops on the ground
During the first two years, the EWI project team learned that they could be far more effective with more personnel who could intercede with the large numbers of students at risk. In September 2008, City Year sent 14 corps members to FSAS four full days a week and Communities in Schools of Philadelphia (CISP) dispatched two social workers.
The City Year corps members, 17-24 years old, work in all three grades with a focus on sixth grade, monitoring attendance, helping with homework, instructing small groups, tutoring, mentoring, and being positive role models. They follow their targeted students throughout the day, including during lunch and on the playground, and provide academic support and activities after school.
The two CISP caseworkers work with students who need emotional and behavioral supports, and each has a full caseload. One works exclusively with sixth graders.
The schools also have a computerized data tool that allows staff to track the latest student-specific information on each of the four early warning indicators, plus PSSA results and reading levels.
But the linchpin of the work is grade-group meetings for staff. Twice a month, teachers and resource staff meet to discuss students individually and either identify interventions that are already available or create new ones. Teachers assess the progress of students and identify more students who need help.
“EWI allows teachers to collaborate with others in meaningful conversation that brings about strategies that work,” said teacher Lesly Eckstein, who is the union building representative. “We share and celebrate success stories at the end of each meeting.”
An on-site EWI Project Manager coordinates outside partners, teachers, administrators, and support staff, and reaches out to students and families to integrate the project into daily life at the school.
Since the stepped-up interventions started, there are signs of progress. At the close of the first marking period, students served through EWI had higher attendance than they did the previous year – which reverses the usual pattern of attendance declining as students get older.
Of the more than 250 students who were “off-track” to graduation at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year at FSAS, 54 percent have shown improvement in their original risk area, and nearly two-thirds have improved their grades in math and English.
The collaborative plans to expand in the North Region next year, first targeting those middle schools with the highest numbers of students with one or more of the early-warning indicators, and then expanding to high schools.
And there are efforts to put more components in place. Teachers who work with the same students are looking for more opportunities to teach together and want more time to keep track of each student’s data, progress, and needs.
The yearly cost – $150,000 to $400,000, depending on the size of the school and EWI components implemented – is more than offset by the far heftier price tag of dealing later on with students who enter ninth grade unprepared and fall off track, the project’s backers said.
Bambino, who has seen many reforms come and go, is encouraged. “The ability to develop customized supports for students as part of a collaborative team of educators and stakeholders sets this project apart,” she said. “It gives me hope for our students.”