The room at the end of the hall contains the hottest table at Broadmoor Middle School.
There 12-year-old Kimery Smith twists apart a cream-filled cookie while she chats with 22-year-old Laura Dardinac, who munches from a bag of almonds.
They talk, giggle and share snacks away from the bustle of the crowded lunchroom, part of the school’s lunch buddies initiative.
“It’s very informal, and there’s no schoolwork. They love that,” said Dardinac, a City Year corps member from Brooklyn, N.Y., who is working at Broadmoor for a year after finishing college. “Instead of having lunch like everybody else, they come here. This is like the VIP section. It’s basically a reward system for them.”
Systematic rewarding of good students — instead of just punishing those who misbehave — is part of the culture change strategy employed at Broadmoor, where Diplomas Now, an educational program proven to turn around troubled schools, is at work.
A combination of three education-related nonprofits, Diplomas Now operates in 40 schools across the country and in three East Baton Rouge Parish schools — Broadmoor and Capitol middle schools and Belaire High School — but its work at Broadmoor has garnered national attention. PBS’s “News Hour” program featured the school in December, and The Huffington Post news website followed with an article.
Based on the findings of educational researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Diplomas Now tries to pinpoint students’ educational impediments and remove them. It focuses on schools once known as “dropout factories,” said David Phillips, the Diplomas Now field manager for East Baton Rouge Parish schools. At its Baton Rouge schools, the program adds focused curriculum to the state of Louisiana’s core classes, even adding classes that focus on “soft skills,” such as career planning and becoming a better student, Phillips said.
It also gives additional support to classroom teachers through training and utilizes data — students’ test scores, absences and behavior incidents — to determine what students need to succeed.
“Anytime you have a program willing to come in and assist those kids that most people would toss to the side, I think that speaks volumes,” said Gavin Lewis, principal of Broadmoor Middle School. “I love it.”
In less than two full years since implementing the Diplomas Now program, Broadmoor has turned around in some ways. The school’s rate of students given suspensions as punishment dropped from 50 percent to 15 percent, according to the school’s statistics, which are pinned on a bulletin board in the school office. The failure rate dropped, too, from 25 percent to 7 percent.
Absenteeism has dropped, also. Sixth grade students who entered Broadmoor as the program began last year improved their attendance rate, according to statistics gathered by researchers at Johns Hopkins. The program closely monitors the number of students who attend school less than 90 percent of the time, a statistic that separates those likely to graduate high school from those likely to drop out, Phillips said. This number dropped from the beginning of the year to the end.
More than half of the students who missed more than 10 percent of school in the first quarter recovered from chronic absenteeism and were attending school 90 percent of the time by the last quarter of the school year, according to Diplomas Now statistics.
Much of that change comes from individual and small group attention, administrators said.
At the start of every day the 15 to 20 City Year corps members, dressed in their red jackets and vests and white polo shirts, form a tunnel to chant and clap and welcome the students off their buses. The pep rally start has helped to transform the school’s culture, administrators say.
“Last year kids were running from the time they got off the bus until they got on the bus,” said Michilli Hassan, the school transformation facilitator who works to keep the individual nonprofits working together. “It was hard for a lot of teaching and learning to take place because the climate and culture was so toxic with everyone who put their feet on this campus.”
Every morning the students also take a class called “Mastering the Middle Grades.” At Belaire High School a similar class is called “Journey to Careers.”
In some ways Diplomas Now makes the school smaller. Teachers share common students and meet regularly to discuss their progress. The City Year corps members pledge to spend one-on-one time with each student in a group of 10.
Using databases of test scores, absences and behavior problems, teachers and administrators meet each week to decide which students need the most attention. In these early warning indicator meetings they discuss individual students whose names popped up in one of the computer databases they watch.
“Anytime we have a flag or any indicator on any of those kids, we have an abundance of people who come, the administration, guidance, the (Diplomas Now) program and all the teachers,” Hassan said. “We sit down at a table and we look at why is this kid misbehaving.”
In those meetings the children are placed into one of three tiers that represent what kind of attention they need. Tier one encompasses the students that are doing well. Tiers two and three are the students that need the most help in academics, attendance or other areas. Some get double or triple the math courses, or additional English and reading.
City Year corps members and the Communities in Schools program provide the extra hands needed for all the one-on-one attention, which placed a social worker at Broadmoor to focus on the school’s neediest students.
City Year’s corps members — young people from across the country who give a year to working in inner-city schools — “nag and nurture” students. They focus on interacting with students, tutoring them and also building rapport. Nagging comes in when students misbehave, fall behind in class or miss school. City Year workers send letters home and make phone calls.
“All those hands on deck, when you have all these parties involved, you can be more intensive with the things they do,” Lewis said. “If they weren’t here, we have over 500 kids, it would be hard for us to attack every time a child is late.”
When a phone call or letter is not enough, the school enlists its social worker, placed by Communities in Schools.
Outside the office of Patrick Gensler, the school’s social worker, 15-year-old Tywayne Stepter reflected on the help he gets from Gensler, who Stepter talks to about video games and basketball before getting to the deep stuff.
“He’s experienced some of the same things himself,” Stepter said.
Stepter said there were rarely times he felt he could ask someone at school for help before a social worker was at school.
“Some people are shy to talk to the teacher while everybody is around,” he said.
Gensler has an important role in making the school run smoothly, Lewis said.
“He has a huge case load here ... where he sees kids on a consistent basis for those kids who have home problems,” Lewis said, “kids who woke up this morning and their parents were fussing at them or something happened.”
Students placed in the third tier because of lower reading scores attend the Savvy Reader’s Lab.
One day in late February, teacher Gia Johnson Emanuel led her class to write short journal entries about the young adult novel “Bird” by Angela Johnson, about a girl who runs away from home to find her stepfather. The class was small — fewer than 10 students — and the students were encouraged to discuss their own takes on the novel.
Emanuel described the class as a “safe haven” for readers who are on the cusp of a basic reading ability. In the class they develop reading and writing skills that will help them in the future.
“It’s a comfortable environment because everybody here is on the same level,” she said. “They are free to make mistakes.”
While the Diplomas Now system spends so much time ensuring students get the help they need to stay in school, administrators at Broadmoor try to focus on rewarding the children who deserve positive attention. The lunch buddies program is one way to reward. They also provide nacho parties and passes for a bowling alley near the school. Once they brought a video game bus to the campus so children could play games during lunch.
“We spend so much energy on the kids who are not doing well, the kids who are doing bad, to try to get them on the right track, that we tend to let those kids who are doing well not feel like they are wanted or not give them enough attention,” Lewis said. “My goal in coming here was not to do that. And not have those kids who are doing well feel like the forgotten few.”
Back in the “VIP room,” eating lunch with the City Year corps, Kimery Smith wore a red sweatshirt a lot like the ones the corps members wear. She said just interacting with them opens a new world to her.
“I get to talk to them,” Kimery said. “It’s interesting. I get to know about how they came to Broadmoor. It’s exciting.”
Next to her was Caitlin Garrity, a New Orleans native who graduated from LSU and joined City Year after wondering what she wanted to do.
“The situation that most of these students are in, it’s completely different from the education that I’m coming from,” Garrity said. “It has made me realize how privileged I was to receive the education I received.”
Garrity has tutored Kimery in math, turning lessons into games that the sixth-grade student enjoys. When Garrity said working with the 12-year-old had helped improve her own life, Kimery looked stunned for a second.
“All of them, really, they make me want to be a better person,” Garrity said.