Here, Kids Are Encouraged to Dream, not Drop Out, Reports Byron Pitts for CBS News

November 30th, 2010

CHICAGO, Nov. 30, 2010

An Inner-City Chicago School Practices “Diplomas Now,” an Approach That Tackles Attendance, Behavior and Course Performance

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By Byron Pitts

Did your school day ever start with dancing, clapping and cheers? Not likely, reports CBS News chief national correspondent Byron Pitts.

But Chicago Talent Development Charter High School is not like most places. Centered in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, it’s a new approach to an old problem.

“Our goal is to make it a game changer,” said Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins researcher.

With one million kids dropping out of school every year, Balfanz wants to retool what he calls the “drop-out factories.”

“If you live in a high poverty environment it’s really bad – your chances of getting out with a good education, having a shot at the American dream at best – 50/50,” said Balfanz. “That’s why we have to do something about it.”

Balfanz created “Diplomas Now” — an approach aimed at tackling what he calls “the ABCs”: attendance, behavior and course performance, the warning signs for future dropouts.

Diplomas Now

Students falling behind on any of the ABCs are flagged at weekly Early Warning Intervention meetings with teachers, social workers and tutors. Because there is rarely just one problem, there is a program to support students in class, and in their neighborhoods. Even the teachers receive extra training.

In another program, “Near Peers” like Jason Dones are tutors and mentors. Mostly twentysomethings not far removed from high school themselves. They shadow the same group of freshman students from class to class.

“From the start we’re setting the tone while we’re in there,” said Dones. “We’re setting the tone while they’re in their classes, trying to offer them support academically, emotionally.”

Building a Grad Nation

Already it’s made a difference. At Chicago Talent, average daily attendance is at 90 percent – that’s eight points above Chicago public schools. And so far, 92 percent of 9th graders are on track to graduate – 28 points above the district average.

9th grader Darvell Smith scored mostly “Fs” last year. Now, with the help of Jason Dones, it’s been all As.

“I can tell him about any of my personal problems,” said Smith. “He’ll listen and he’ll help me get through it so I can come to school the next day.”

It was like Smith was saying Dones is his safe place.

“That’s the biggest part of our job – is relationship building,” said Dones. “So finding something that can become something greater is the thing that I focus on.”

Diplomas Now is currently in 20 schools in 10 cities. A new $30 million federal grant could mean more schools in more places. Places where a kid is encouraged to dream, not drop out.

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