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At Clinton Middle School, a Diplomas Now turnaround from ‘insane asylum’ to ‘warm and supportive’

Mark Keierleber | March 21, 2016

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City Year

City Year mentors work with students at LA’s Clinton Middle School.

When Andrea Schwartz first visited LA’s Clinton Middle School, the sight reminded her of “an insane asylum.” Paper airplanes and pencils dangled from the ceiling, and the hallways were stark white save for a sign demanding kids don’t run.

The school, in Historic South-Central not far from USC, had been open for only five years, but it suffered from such low academic performance that the Los Angeles Unified School District fired almost all of the teachers and started from scratch. To lead the charge, they brought in Diplomas Now, a whole-school approach that does whatever it takes — inside the classroom and out — to ensure the most at-risk students at schools across the country reach the finish line.

Since then, Schwartz and her Diplomas Now team have made a lot of improvements to Clinton, which is located in an industrial neighborhood next to a storage facility, sewing shops and abandoned warehouses. When one neighboring warehouse was being used to film pornography, they called the cops.

“We had to have the police go in and tell them to hang curtains because it was directly across from one of the classrooms,” said Schwartz, the school transformation facilitator at Clinton for Diplomas Now. “I’m not kidding. The teacher had to cover the windows with paper until the curtains went up.”

Beyond the physical appearance, pupils have also made huge academic gains at Clinton, where 93 percent of the 900 students are Hispanic and nearly everybody is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. But with the grant money used to support the program now running dry, Clinton Principal Brenda Pensamiento, who started at the school last year, said she worries the services Diplomas Now has provided will fizzle out next year.

“To be quite honest, the amount is nothing compared to all the services and the resources that we get,” she said. “Even being a Title 1 school, we really don’t have enough money to pay for the entire contract.”


When researcher Robert Balfanz observed high school graduation ceremonies in the 1990s, he thought all the clapping and the cheering for about 100 kids seemed strange. When those graduating seniors were freshmen, their class sizes were much, much bigger. During visits to these schools, Balfanz remembers seeing more students in the hallways than the classrooms.

Robert Balfanz, the co-founder of Diplomas Now, is a research professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. (Photo courtesy Robert Balfanz)

Robert Balfanz, the co-founder of Diplomas Now, is a research professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. (Photo courtesy Robert Balfanz)

“It was sort of this odd thing that you have these wild celebrations for what was clearly a small fraction of the kids,” said Balfanz, a researcher at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in Baltimore. “So then we just started asking ourselves, ‘Well, did we just randomly end up in a couple of the really crazy, worst schools in America, or is this more of a thing?’”

Although states didn’t use the same formula to determine schools’ graduation rates at the time, Balfanz and his team began to track high schools’ “promoting power” — a statistic that showed class sizes shrank by about 60 percent between freshman and senior year in about 2,000 high-poverty high schools.

By tracking early warning signs, Balfanz’s research shows that 75 percent of America’s high school dropouts can be identified between sixth and ninth grades. These students have poor attendance, bad behavior and course failure in English or math.

So during the 2008-09 school year, Balfanz co-founded Diplomas Now as a pilot project at a middle school in Philadelphia, pairing three organizations with school officials to focus on a singular mission. By focusing on these early warning indicators, the organizations hone in on the transition from middle school to ninth grade — the most critical year of support for students.

City Year2First is City Year, an AmeriCorps program that hires young adults for a year to serve as tutors, mentors and role models for students. For the schools’ most at-risk students is the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization, Communities in Schools, which connects students and their families to local resources, from mentorship programs to counseling services to food. The last piece that brings it all together is Johns Hopkins University’s Talent Development Secondary, which uses data to identify students who are falling off track.

The organization now serves about 26,000 students in 13 cities — from New York City to Seattle to Miami, expanding in part through a $30 million federal Investing in Innovation Fund grant received in 2010. Clinton Middle School, which also received a School Improvement Grant, was added to the network in 2011. In LA, the program is also in Manual Arts High School and Jefferson High School.


When the Los Angeles Unified School District sprang into action in 2011, only 6 percent of students were proficient in English and 12 percent were proficient in math. When district officials asked Clinton teachers to reapply for their jobs and the administration was replaced, protests ensued. Ultimately, 17 members of the original staff were rehired. Diplomas Now was selected as the turnaround model.

Weeks before the school year began, a team of City Year corps members, who are AmeriCorps members between 17 and 24 years old and commit to a year of service, descended on Clinton — paint brushes in hand.

“They painted murals, they painted college logos in the cafeteria, they painted silhouettes of famous people with quotes,” Schwartz said. “It just made the school look like a welcoming place as opposed to a county office.”

In classrooms, City Year corps members offer extended learning time and support time for students on focus lists. Communities in Schools connects the school’s most at-risk students and their families to community resources. They also offer a handful of support groups to boost self esteem, such as XY-Zone, a mentorship program for at-risk boys.

With the support of Johns Hopkins’ Talent Development Secondary, Schwartz runs student data to determine initiatives that could support academic success. For example, the school restructured its bell schedule this year, pushing back the start time by 15 minutes and adding an advisory period in first period, when all students are given free breakfast.

With data, members of the Diplomas Now team then meet regularly with a group of teachers to discuss students at the school who are starting to fall off track to develop an intervention plan.

Last year, 89 percent of students passed their English classes and 92 percent passed math — both above the district average.

“From the first year that I was here when this was not a pleasant place to be, to now, this is a very welcoming, warm and supportive school,” Schwartz said. “I think the kids feel it and they know it.”

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