Orlando Martinez-Fortun is not a teacher or a counselor, but if a student at Homestead Senior High School is having a bad week, he is often the first to know.
That’s because Martinez-Fortun obsessively tracks student progress. He marks absences and notes test scores, grades and behavior issues in a spreadsheet. Then Martinez-Fortun — who directs an innovative dropout prevention program at the school — meets on a weekly basis with his team and with teachers to talk about who is getting off track and why.
At Homestead High, there are a lot of reasons kids might skip school for days or flunk exams.
Many students live miles away from the school in deep South Miami-Dade. Most come from low-income families. Some have to care for younger siblings or work to help support their families. Many, as recent immigrants, are struggling to learn English.
Five years ago, just over half of the students who had started at the school as freshmen graduated.
Thanks in part to Martinez-Fortun and his team — along with hard work by Homestead High administrators and teachers — this is starting to change. Last year, the school estimated that the graduation rate was 72 percent.
Martinez-Fortun and his team are part of a program called Diplomas Now, a partnership between Johns Hopkins University, City Year, an organization that provides academic support in struggling schools, and Communities In Schools, a national nonprofit that tackles out-of-school problems like getting kids glasses or helping their families find child care for younger siblings.
As the representative from Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins, Martinez-Fortun keeps meticulous track of struggling students. Based on the data he monitors, he helps City Year and Communities In Schools staff figure out who needs extra attention.
Without Diplomas Now, said Martinez-Fortun, “You just don’t have enough adults in this school to meet the needs of the kids here.”
This has been a challenging school. It carried a black cloud over it for years. Jeffrey Gonzalez, the vice principal at Homestead High
Jeffrey Gonzalez, the vice principal at Homestead High, agreed that the extra support has played an integral role in the school’s transformation, which he described as “epic.”
“This has been a challenging school. It carried a black cloud over it for years,” he said. “Graduation is shooting up because it’s about focusing on students, making students feel that it is important, somebody is looking, somebody is motivating me.”
On a recent Friday, students in a ninth-grade math class had just finished a lesson on graphs and split into two groups. Most of the students did practice problems with the teacher, but seven young men sat in a circle with Melvin Vasquez, a member of City Year, to review the lesson. Vasquez balanced a small whiteboard on his knees and drew a graph as the group, which had been flagged for extra support based on Diplomas Now’s data, filled out a worksheet together.
“So everybody understands that, right?” Vasquez asked, after going through a few of the problems on the worksheet.
“Not really,” said ninth-grader Antavious Harris.
“The whole thing.”
Vasquez erased the whiteboard and drew a new graph, giving Harris another example.
In a regular classroom setting, that kind of extra attention isn’t always possible.
“We’re just another layer of support there,” said Scott Crumpler, who oversees the Diplomas Now program in Miami-Dade. “We’re taking the research from [Johns Hopkins], we’re taking the ideas and we’re making it fit with the school district.”
Diplomas Now has been implemented in seven Miami-Dade middle and high schools and in about 30 schools nationwide.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins are reviewing data from the program to gauge its effectiveness, and although they haven’t finished the study yet, results so far look promising. Of the students who have gotten extra support from Diplomas Now in Miami-Dade, 75 percent finished the 2015-2016 school year on track, meaning they were not falling behind in classes or missing a significant number of school days. That’s compared to 63 percent during the 2012-2013 school year, the first year Diplomas Now was in place at six of its seven Miami-Dade partner schools.
In more affluent circumstances your parents can get you a tutor, they can get you a psychologist, but in high-needs areas if the school doesn’t provide it, it’s hard for parents to provide it. Robert Balfanz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Education
Robert Balfanz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, is one of the founders of Diplomas Now. His research shows that students who veer off track as early as sixth grade jeopardize their chances of graduating from high school. If a sixth-grade student misses a month or more of school, has repeated behavior issues and is failing math or English, Balfanz has found, he or she only has a 25 percent chance of graduating without some form of intervention.
“In more affluent circumstances your parents can get you a tutor, they can get you a psychologist, but in high-needs areas if the school doesn’t provide it, it’s hard for parents to provide it,” Balfanz said. In high-needs schools with dozens or even hundreds of struggling students, teachers and staff can easily be overwhelmed.
“We found that by bringing in these extra supports, teachers have more time to do what they’re good at, teaching and learning,” Balfanz said.
At Homestead High, the extra support is focused mainly on students in the ninth and 10th grades, critical transition years. Before students even arrive on campus their freshman year, Martinez-Fortun sits down with the Diplomas Now team and school administrators to look at data from eighth grade and figure out who the school should keep an eye on.
Students on Diplomas Now’s “focus list” benefit from City Year’s tutoring programs and from support provided by the Communities In Schools coordinator, who meets with the teens one-on-one to address problems at home. The team also meets with teachers and other staff members once a week to discuss how to get kids back on track.
Briana Partida is one student who used to be on Diplomas Now’s radar. Her freshman year, Partida missed 25 days of school and her grades dropped. She said Martinez-Fortun and the Diplomas Now team called her house repeatedly, “motivating me to come to school,” and gave her extra support. Now a junior, Partida’s attendance is much better and she hopes to one day become a lawyer.
Other students, like Brianna Torres, now a senior, said the “one-on-one guidance” from Communities In Schools was the key for her, while sophomore Ashley Sanchez said having extra support from City Year in her math class helped her stay on task. Torres wants to be a nurse practitioner, while Sanchez plans to become a cardiologist.
Martinez-Fortun smiled as the students talked about their goals for the future. “Seeing them their ninth grade year getting sent to my office for silly referrals or for Saturday school and now seeing them talk about wanting to be doctors and lawyers, it’s super rewarding,” he said.