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Imagine a school had the ability to analyze real-time attendance, behavior and academic data for middle school students on a nightly or weekly basis, allowing for intervention before students find themselves in serious trouble.

Thanks to a communitywide partnership spearheaded by the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, that is what’s happening in three Asheville and Buncombe County middle schools, with plans to expand to all eight middle schools.

The United Way, Asheville schools and Buncombe County Schools and a host of community partners have teamed up for the Middle School Success program, which identifies students almost immediately as they start to get into trouble, and partners them with the necessary support to help them succeed.

What’s more, the program’s collaborators are working to create a community hub at each middle school, offering homework help, financial advice, nutrition and other services, not only to at-risk students, but also their families and any family within that middle school community who wishes to participate.

Just the numbers

According to the United Way, Asheville and Buncombe County schools see just 77 percent of students living in poverty graduate from high school versus 90 percent of other students. Such obstacles to success can be even greater for homeless students, which in 2014 accounted for 750 in the two systems.

Laura Elliot, director of Middle School Success for the United Way, said research shows that if a student hits one or more of three key indicators during middle school years, without intervention their likelihood of graduation can drop to 25 percent.

Those key indicators include attendance, missing 18 days of school, two or more behavioral referrals and failing a core subject such as English or math.

“We have a couple hundred kids who are quietly hitting these markers,” Elliot said.

Early intervention in middle school changes the outcome significantly, leading to higher graduation rates, she said. The key to intervention in the Middle School Success program goes beyond just supporting the student to working with their families and the community where they live. This full support system gives students the absolute best chance for success, Elliot said.

Why middle school?

In 2009, the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe decided to take on a focused initiative, and looked for an area in need, yet lacking in services. A community needs assessment found a lack of resources and support for middle-school students, Elliot said.

Add to that the challenge of simply being of middle school age. Sometimes called the “Bermuda Triangle” of life, middle school is a time when social, emotional and physical life changes all converge to present a unique set of challenges, according to the experts.

“All middle-schoolers are at risk,” said Wendy Cuellar, school counselor at Enka Middle School. “It’s a very, very vulnerable age.”

In the summer of 2013, the Buncombe County United Way was one of nine nationally to receive the Middle School Success Challenge grant. From there, they began making plans to create Asheville-Buncombe’s Middle School Success Program. The program is in the training and launch phase this year at Asheville, Enka, and Erwin middle schools where it will be piloted before expanding to other middle schools.

Early warnings and data-driven intervention

Middle School Success begins with a shared data system. Teachers can pull reports for their class – attendance and behavior on a nightly basis; academics on a weekly basis. Principals can see school-wide reports, and parents have access to their student’s data, Elliot said.

What’s more, out-of-school care providers such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western NC, can see the reports as well. All the collaborators have access to a shared dashboard for each student. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) governs access to student data, so each person with access to the student’s data signs a confidentiality agreement.

The Early Warning and Response System (EWRS), as it’s called, represents the first of its kind in North Carolina, according to the United Way. It allows the adults in any given middle-school student’s life to see the same data and quickly take action to collaborate if a student starts to falter.

Cuellar said the system makes data easier to analyze and paints a clearer picture. For example, imagine a student is missing one day of school every two weeks. Teachers may not notice immediately, but when they run the data report and see the pattern, it becomes clear, Cuellar said.

Truth delivered daily

“It’s like the little warning light that says, ‘This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be going,’ ” she said.

Each school has a full-time Middle School Success resource coordinator on campus who organizes partnerships within the community. When a student begins to get in trouble, school staff and that resource coordinator can draw from those community resources based on the student’s and family’s specific needs, Elliot said.

For those community partners, the system provides access to data they may not have otherwise.

Jayme Davis, assistant director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western NC, said outside organizations like hers are always looking at ways to become more involved in students’ success. Access to shared data and communication puts everyone in students’ lives on the same page, she said.

“This is going to make it really easy for us to communicate, maybe where we weren’t communicating well before,” Davis said.

Within the dashboard, these collaborators can leave notes for each other. For example, if a student is having behavioral problems, a teacher can voice this concern within the dashboard. A Big Brothers mentor may read that and respond with a suggestion or technique he’s used when the student has acted out, Elliot said.

Community-wide effort

Traditionally, responsibility for children with academic, behavioral or attendance trouble at school would have fallen on the shoulders of the school counselor, Cuellar said.

That’s no longer true.

Once the system flags students, the resource coordinator can link them to the best resources. Students may need tutors or mentors, Elliot said. Or they may need a different type of expert to deal with social services or assist with physical or mental health challenges, she said.

“It’s a real collective approach,” Elliot said.

In tandem with this effort, the Middle School Success program also runs the “Who Got You Through” campaign, indicating we all have someone in our life — perhaps a teacher, neighbor or coach — who helped us when things got tough. The campaign asks the community to remember the person who was so important and volunteer to be that person in a student’s life today.

Cuellar said that’s led to more adults on campus. Students who arrive early on the bus have “breakfast buddies,” mentors who meet with them before classes begin. Others may have “lunch buddies” with a similar intention.

United Way volunteer Layton Hower talks with Trent Owens, left, and Kaden Gosnell as they work on buiilding a balloon car in Ms. Hoffman’s 7th-grade science class on Thursday, April 28. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Organizers agree, the program is receiving communitywide support because it just makes sense. No one organization is responsible for everything, and it gives all of the adults in a student’s life a clearer picture of what’s going on.

“It’s a pressure-release valve,” Elliot said. “We all have the same goal; we’re all invested in the success of this student.”

As the program continues to grow and evolve, each middle school will become more and more a hub and a resource for the entire community associated with a particular middle school.

Davis, Cuellar and Elliot all point to the unique set of challenges that so many of the families of the students who will benefit from Middle School Success do face. Students come from families who live in poverty, are sometimes homeless, may be single parent families or even have a parent serving time in prison.

“School is the only place with structure, stability and predictability,” Cuellar said.

The school will also serve as the place where everyone is connected through Middle School Success.

Monthly family nights will bring together students and the adults in their lives for a meal and a speaker who might talk about healthy meal planning or financial management, Elliot said.

Weekly homework dinners will offer a meal, followed by homework time. Teachers and tutors will circulate, not only to help students, but also to help parents who may struggle with strategies to help their child with school work.

These types of events have been held in other parts of the country – Spokane, Washington was an earlier implementer of a similar program, Elliot said.

“Everyone assumes it’s the free meal people are coming for,” she said. “Time and time again, it was the sense of community – that’s what really kept them coming back.”

Those events aren’t just open to the students flagged as having academic, attendance or behavior issues, but to anyone within that middle school’s community, Elliot said.

Measuring success

Cuellar summed up the future measure of success of the program with an analogy.

“Do we want to be the ones standing at the bottom of the waterfall and catching kids after they fall, or do we want to stand at the top of the waterfall catching them before they fall?” she asked.

“This moves us all up to the top of the waterfall.”

Success comes when less and less students find themselves in academic, behavioral or attendance trouble, but also as all of the adults in the student’s life become better connected.

“The data is important,” Davis said. “But really, it’s all about the students and how the adults in their life support them.”

Cuellar, who has served as a guidance counselor for 20 years, believes Middle School Success will have the biggest impact out of anything she’s experienced.

“This is the one collaboration I’m more proud of,” she said. “I think there will be a time we look back and say, I can’t believe we lived without this.”

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Lea Hart

Lea Hart is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at lea.hart@gmail.com.

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