Agents of change

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  February 3, 2011

Over 90 percent of the students here qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. More than one-third were chronically absent last year. And just one in four eighth graders scored "proficient" on standardized tests in math and English. None made the mark in science.

Roger Williams has been tagged a "turnaround" school. It's got a new principal, a mandate for change — and, like three other Providence middle schools, a City Year team in place.

That team, under the old regime, might have been gathering in Kennedy Plaza around this time for jumping jacks. But this is a different City Year; the red jackets are scattered about the cafeteria, instead, engaged in a near-daily ritual of greeting, checking in, offering a little help.

Corps member Joanna Ong, 18, listens patiently as a boy holds court on his favorite video game. A few tables down, team leader Kerry Pecho, 21, counsels a kid who slapped his tormentor on the bus the day before.

And at the far end of the cafeteria, Emeline Allen, 24, a Brown University graduate, hosts the Roger Williams Morning Drawing Club. One boy sketches out a bank heist scene; the girls are busy making Valentine's Day cards.

The club is, on one level, a bit of fun before school. But for Allen and her team, it is also an "attendance initiative" — a crucial plank in City Year's new approach to service.

The organization began its transformation about five years ago — pulling out of senior centers, parks, and community gardens to focus squarely on the dropout crisis devastating urban schools.

Guiding the endeavor: a nifty bit of research out of Johns Hopkins University suggesting that would-be high school dropouts could be identified as early as the sixth grade by way of three warning factors known as the "ABCs": "A" for poor attendance, "B" for bad behavior, and "C" for weak course performance in math and English.

With 15 percent of American high schools producing nearly half the dropouts, City Year saw an opportunity for economies of scale: focus on these "dropout factories," and the elementary and middle schools that feed them, and you might reach 50 percent of a city's at-risk population.

City Year is not the only institution building an "early-warning" system. Locally, East Providence High School is pursuing something similar. And the Providence After School Alliance, which works closely with City Year, weighs some of the same factors.

But City Year's comprehensive, systematic approach is intriguing. Working with education consultants, the organization is creating a full set of bite-sized, ABC interventions to be deployed across the country.

At Roger Williams, the attendance push means high-fives for kids getting off the bus, the drawing club, and — a little later in the morning — calls to the home of each student who failed to show up that day.

In the classroom, City Year pulls aside struggling students for extra tutoring. And the primary intervention on behavioral issues comes in the form of lunchtime mentoring sessions, meant to capitalize on the youthful corps' "near-peer" relationship with students.

Here, corps member Conceptia Geffrard, 24, pulls eighth-graders Julianny Santos and Yasmin Lopez out of the noisy cafeteria, pizza in hand, for a quiet chat in the auditorium about the recent snowstorm, hip-hop, and something a little more personal.

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