On Monday, opening day in Miami-Dade, students will flood the halls of a school that for the first time in a long time is on the upswing.
After eight years, long-struggling Carol City Middle school jumped from its string of F and D grades to a C — and one reason why might be another school two miles down the road: St. Thomas University.
The two schools partnered to provide extra support for middle schoolers who need it most. One full year into the programming, Carol City had half as many indoor suspensions and has seen a steady rise in standardized test scores that determine the state’s school grading system.
“In the first year, they made some really fantastic gains,” said St. Thomas University’s Anthony Vinciguerra. “I’m not saying we did it all, but we had hundreds of students spending thousands of hours there, so we like to think we helped.”
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Vinciguerra, who has been a coordinator at the private Catholic university’s Center of Community Engagement for the past 13 years, was inspired by the popular Diplomas Now program that tackles the “real factors” that stop kids from going to college: absenteeism, suspensions, poor grades and standardized test scores.
He wanted to pull off the same results without the full-time staffers and $1 million price tag. So he enlisted his students.
Saturday, dozens of St. Thomas students pulled weeds, clipped hedges and wrote motivational notes to Carol City kids as part of their “beautification day.”
In many ways, the South Florida partnership mirrors its more-established inspiration. Undergraduates serve as reinforcements in the classroom and work with students in small groups on their math and reading skills or tutor them one-on-one after school.
But Maria Medina, the new principal of Carol City Middle, saw opportunities to personalize the program that was already in motion when she started working at the school.
Rather that reviewing report cards once every nine weeks when the grades were final, like Diplomas Now does, Medina implemented progress report card reviews, where students could have a conversation with their St. Thomas student mentors about where they were and where they needed to be. Sometimes, the mentors reward their students with certificates or candy.
“We were really able to see a momentum in the kids,” Medina said.
Another group of St. Thomas graduate students help the single full-time school counselor responsible for all 350 kids. The student interns work with kids in groups or one-on-one to talk over problems inside and outside of the classroom.
“We don’t want it to be too psychology-y,” Medina said.
She tells the college students to aim for a mentor-mentee relationship, and if the student says anything truly troubling the mentor knows to elevate the information to the Carol City faculty members who oversee the program.
It makes a difference, Medina said, “just to have that person available to speak to them once a week and provide them a listening ear.”
This focus on factors at home or in the community is deliberate. When Vinciguerra approached then-principal Sonia Romero about the possibility of the program, she told him about her first day on the job. It was 2013, the day after one of her students, 12-year-old Tequila Forshee, was shot dead in her home as her grandma braided her hair for the first day of school.
The really sad thing, she told him, is how the kids responded to the counselors she dispatched.
“They shrugged their shoulders and said ‘this happens all the time,’” she told Vinciguerra.
Everyone involved in the partnership gets trained with a “trauma-focused approach,” he said, and many of the St. Thomas students grew up in the same neighborhoods and experienced the same level of gun violence in their everyday lives, so they understand what it’s like.
“Unless you help kids deal with what’s going on with these adverse psychological issues, they’re not going to be able to learn,” Vinciguerra said. “You won’t be able to just tutor them to success.”
Some undergrad psychology students also help refer Carol City students to social services and help track their support. There are no moves to tweak the program this year, Vinciguerra said, but he and Medina have grand plans for the rest of the five-year partnership.
He envisions after-school athletics programs, visits to St. Thomas games, a computer science program or a coding boot camp. She wants to host the middle school’s honor roll breakfast at St. Thomas so her kids can get used to being on a college campus.
Both sides agree the program has been a benefit to their students at a low cost to both institutions.
“Some people call it service learning, community based learning,” he said. “Whatever you call it, that’s the idea: learning while doing.”