June 8, 2014 at 8:04 pm

School teams tackle 'early warning' signs of at-risk students

City Year member Kelly Gragl gives Clippert Academy student Patricia Pereisa, 12, special attention. The nonprofit provides mentors. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

At Clippert Academy, a middle school in southwest Detroit, it’s late afternoon, students have been dismissed and a handful of teachers, administrators and counselors are gathered in a classroom.

Sitting in desks facing each other, the group looks through packets of information about several students and begins a discussion about those who are showing signs of trouble.

Using information that’s been gathered on attendance, behavior and school performance in math and English, the group talks about sixth- and seventh-grade students who are “off-track” or at-risk based on dropout studies from Johns Hopkins University.

Students on a downward trend are flagged at biweekly meetings. On this day, four students are on the list.

The team members flip through spreadsheets with quarterly data on those three “early warning indicators” and share their insight into the child.

Science teacher Kathy Meloche has concerns about a seventh-grade boy who is tardy to her first-hour class every day and struggling with academics.

“He has been coming in late a half an hour every single day. It’s a serious issue and it’s why he is having trouble,” Meloche says. “He is missing a third of the class. He isn’t the kind of kid who can just get in and get to it.”

The group includes a member of Talent Development Secondary, which monitors student data; City Year, a nonprofit that provides mentors; and Communities in Schools, which connects kids with health care and social services.

They are in the school as part of a program called Diplomas Now, created to decrease dropout rates by giving students an early support system.

The program, which is in its second year at the school, is based on research showing that half of all eventual dropouts can be identified by the end of sixth grade, and close to 75 percent by the start of high school. Studies found that middle school students who fail courses have poor attendance and poor behavior.

In this case, the student doesn’t appear interested in school, says one teacher, but he likes to watch the news.

A call will be made home about attendance. Talking to the student about his interests to encourage his involvement in school is another option, the team decides.

“Another teacher gave him a job, and he really liked that,” Meloche says. “Maybe he is one of the kids we need to give a job to. Maybe he needs to be the line leader.”

'More challenges'

It’s the kind of interaction between school departments that didn’t happen before at Clippert, a Detroit Public School where 98.4 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. It does now as part of Diplomas Now, which operates in 40 schools in 14 cities nationally, including three schools in Detroit.

“In sixth grade, typically your relationships with your peers, everyone, it’s all changing. All kids go through this, but poverty magnifies this,” said Robert Balfanz, a senior research scientist at Johns Hopkins University. “You take on child care responsibility and elder care responsibility. That’s when gangs start to recruit males. There are more challenges.”

According to data by Kellie Hinkle, Diplomas Now director of school turnaround at City Year, about 15 percent of the students at Clippert have early warning indicators.

As of the end of third quarter in the 2013-14 school year, Clippert saw a 67 percent decrease in the number of students with less than 85 percent attendance, a 55 percent decrease in the number of students failing English and a 66 percent drop in the number of students failing math.

The program costs about $600 per student and is funded nationally through the PepsiCo Foundation and a $30 million U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation grant.

At Clippert, social worker Joan Fears sit with seventh-grade girls for a Communities in Schools Girls Group meeting.

Talking it out

The students eat a hot lunch while Fears asks them to talk about their life and what’s bothering them. Many of the girls have parents who live in Mexico or other countries, and the girls live with relatives.

Melissa Vasquez, 12, says she likes meeting with the group so she can talk among girls her age and express her feelings. She lives with her stepfather and brother while her mother is in Mexico.

“I’m glad you came,” Fears tells her.

The point isn’t just to collect data, Balfanz said. It’s to change circumstances for individual kids.

“Our goal is to be in school where you have a big concentration of high poverty kids, where you need whole school reform, enhanced support and early warming systems,” he said.

“We bring in additional people who do the ‘nagging and nurturing.’ These volunteers look for the kids and call them and help them with their homework, ask them about their life.”

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Clippert Academy Student Alexandra Ortiz (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)