Changing the Lives of Today’s Youth

At the start of each academic year, Dr. Edward Anderson, principal of Tanglewood Middle School, invites community members to join him in welcoming his students back to class. Amid claps, cheers, and words of encouragement, he tells the children, "We are all part of your village - look at all the people who support you."

What the students don’t know is that their village is actually much larger, including many caring individuals who have donated to United Way, the facilitating agency behind OnTrack Middle Grades Success Initiative, and its philanthropic partners. Among these is the Community Foundation of Greenville, which committed to provide $750,000 over five years, its second largest grant to date.

The OnTrack intervention was launched in 2015 in four middle schools where 100 percent of students qualify for free lunch, with a goal of keeping students on a path toward high school graduation. It is based on research indicating that when students have issues with school attendance, behavior, and course performance (ABCs) in middle school, they have only a 20 percent chance of completing high school. Personnel at each school monitor attendance, behavioral referrals, and test scores to identify students who may be starting to disengage. They look for underlying challenges the at-risk students face, then bring together intervention partners and community resources to offer solutions.

One partner, Communities In Schools, provides Student Support Specialists to coordinate student and family supports such as tutoring, transportation, and affordable housing for students in the program. Anderson says these professionals go beyond what’s expected every day to assist students and teachers.

Another partner, Prisma Health–Upstate, operates a School-Based Health Center in each school to provide basic health care and referrals for dental and mental health care. Students are allowed one visit to the health center; to receive further services, they must be enrolled in the OnTrack intervention program by a parent. With free, on-site physicals, many more students are trying out for sports, Anderson says, and the center has been a game-changer in getting the student population vaccinated before school starts.

To address academic issues, especially summer learning loss, a free, six-week summer program is offered by Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL). The full-day learning experience combines academic instruction with enrichment activities, mentorship, and community service projects. During the school year, a Teen Leadership class uses role playing, speeches, and group activities to help students develop personal attributes and social skills that will serve them in school and throughout their lives.

While it’s too soon to evaluate the program’s impact on graduation rates, Anderson says his school has seen a five percent reduction in truancy, and a steady improvement in academics. Overall, the four schools report a 20 percent reduction in the number of behavior referrals that result in out-of-school suspension. Anderson remarked on the development he’s observed in the Teen Leadership students, comparing it to the maturity teachers notice when their former students come back to visit.

“With this initiative, we’re starting to see that change happen within the three years they are here,” he says. “Based on what we’ve seen, we believe this has the potential to change their trajectory toward graduation.”

With this initiative, we're starting to see that change happen within the three years they are here. Based on what we've seen, we believe this has the potential to change their trajectory toward graduation.

Dr. Edward Anderson

Principal of Tanglewood Middle School

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